Alaska Editorial: Alaskans must take lawmakers to task for hidden pork in state budget

Posted: Friday, June 29, 2007

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More than FBI raids.

More than indictments.

More than the governor's promise of open and transparent government.

The Alaska Legislature's capital budget is a case in point. A $1.8 billion package, with $586 million in general fund money and the rest in federal and other funds, passed in the last days of the Legislature with little consultation and public hearing. This was a bloated capital budget, loaded with today's surplus while tomorrow got the Scarlett O'Hara treatment.

Finance committee chairmen - particularly Rep. Kevin Meyer in the House - made a lot of the decisions, pleading lack of time for public vetting.

Well, it's time for the Legislature leadership to say, "Make time."

Capital budget items should be heard in public committee meetings, well-vetted. Each must stand the light of public hearing. That's not what happened this past May.

This is not to equate the current capital budget to the current corruption scandal. But there's a common thread of attitude at work here, and it's that this is the way business is done in the Legislature. Some lawmakers like it, some don't, but one way or another they all have to deal with it. One of the results is spending items that leave many Alaskans shaking their heads or speaking in profanities.

Not everything in the capital budget is questionable. But plenty is, and there would be less if each item had to stand the light-of-day test before the budget even went to conference committee, let alone to the House and Senate floors or to the governor.

Gov. Sarah Palin has a role to play here. With her veto, she can slice the pork. With her veto, she can send the message that this way of doing business is bad business for open government.

But while the governor can veto, she cannot change the ways of the Legislature. Only leading lawmakers can do that.

Right now, those lawmakers are Senate President Lyda Green, Speaker of the House John Harris, Senate Majority Leader Gary Stevens, House Majority Leader Ralph Samuels, Senate Minority Leader Gene Therriault and House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula.

It's too late for 2007. But in 2008 the leadership should issue a new set of marching orders calling for reason and above all openness in the building of a capital budget.

The rest of us aren't without fault here, either. Too long Alaskans have been content to pay only lip service to openness and the "merits" argument. The thinking was that as long as a favored personal project got in, we'd be happy to make room for somebody else's - without much regard for tomorrow's bills.

Palin has said the capital budget requires a responsible adult. Actually, the budget requires lawmakers, constituents and a governor adult enough to see a budget, not a Christmas tree, when the state has a surplus.

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