Alaska editorial: A poor showing by the Legislature

Posted: Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The old saw about how people who love either laws or sausages shouldn't watch either being made rang especially true this year in Juneau. After 137 days, the Alaska Legislature made a lot of sausage.

Lawmakers also:

• Changed the public employees retirement system without doing anything about the $5.7 billion unfunded liability in the system - and without even proving the unfunded liability was a serious problem.

• Passed a workers' compensation bill even its supporters admit is flawed.

These two bills represented hard-won, ugly, but decisive victories for the Senate majority led by Ben Stevens and for Gov. Frank Murkowski over the House of Representatives.

The jury's still out on whether Alaskans will gain or lose by these bills, but they packed enough doubt to make their passage unwise, and enough ideological freight to make them suspicious. The battle over these bills was bitter, sometimes petty, and mostly settled behind closed doors. For the sake of the people lawmakers serve, that bitterness is best forgotten, but don't bet on it.

Lawmakers easily forgot campaign pledges for a more open process. Closed-door meetings were the rule in the special session, where deals were cut to pass the two bills listed above and to settle on a final capital budget. Alaska legislators still couldn't bring themselves to do the public's business before the public.

Evidently they don't think we Alaskans can handle the candor they say they're freer to display behind closed doors. They don't think we can handle the sight of sausage being made. But just the opposite is true. Most Alaskans know how sausage is made - that when spending gets down to the final grind, merit is often a minor spice.

Alaskans and their lawmakers know something else too. The workers' comp and retirement bills didn't rouse much public passion because they touched relatively few citizens where they live.

Where most people live is where $2 billion in capital projects spending is going. Look at the projects, and you see a long list that creates jobs and gives help to thousands of Alaskans. Christmas tree? No doubt. Risk of too much work overheating the construction economy? Yep. Failure of fiscal planning? Unquestionably.

But this budget will do good. A new kitchen at Bean's Cafe? Sure. Money to begin the UAA Integrated Science Facility? We'd be better off with the whole allocation, but $21.6 million is a lot better than last year's zero.

Improvements at Kincaid Park? Running track at Colony High? Books and computer help at East Anchorage elementary schools? Extension of Dowling Road to ease Anchorage traffic?

Nobody's going to turn these projects down.

With oil prices high and the fiscal gap disguised as a quaint little blast from the past, the Senate led the way with a capital budget that puts the con in conservative. Save some of the surplus? Forget it.

Wiser lawmakers counseled moderation in this stack of hundreds of millions, but in the end the compromise lent itself to political cuts rather than policy decisions (Mayor Begich won't get Lake Otis and Tudor even when hell freezes over).

But a teacher hoping for better books and some tech help is more interested in the help for her kids than in the Legislature's process in providing it. A science facility at UAA will help faculty and students long after the political rifts of this session are forgotten.

And the Legislature added $70 million to the base student education allocation. Critics, chief among them Rep. Les Gara, argued for more, and some districts still face cuts. This issue will return next session - and it should return without any links to other legislation. This year, the Senate coupled it to passage of the defined contribution system for public employees.

Land grants to the university and a new virology lab in Fairbanks finally won passage as well.

What lawmakers didn't do was work on a long-range fiscal plan. No surprise there. There was no stomach for it and enough surplus to pretend there's no problem.

The Legislature lived on easy money and power politics this session, and again took up its old ways of doing business in secret. Too many in the Republican leadership prefer it this way.

It's a safe bet more Alaskans don't like it than do. But a $2 billion capital budget pre-empts a lot of discontent.

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