Alaska editorial: Palin struck a blow for fiscal discipline

Posted: Wednesday, July 11, 2007

By cutting $230 million from the capital budget - about 1 of every 8 dollars spent - Gov. Palin struck a blow for a more open and accountable system of funding projects. She took special aim at "earmarks" - special appropriations put in by legislators, independent of any state program or local government priority list.

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In screening for vetoes she asked: Is it a state responsibility? Is it a need or a want? Is it the product of a public process? Does it create expensive new operating obligations? Are there more appropriate funding sources?

Those are all good questions. They make for exactly the kind of scrutiny a project should undergo.

With her tough line, though, she killed or crimped a lot of projects that could have done a lot of good.

In Anchorage, she compiled a long hit list. It included $5 million for the new museum, $4.2 million for modernizing Loussac Library, a $3.9 million shelter for runaway teens, $2.5 million to fix the Sullivan Arena roof and a host of small park and recreation projects. Those aren't state responsibilities, she said, and if they are so important to the local community, they should rate high on the local government's priority list for funding.

She says local governments generally do a good job of getting public involvement when they work up their wish lists. By contrast, the way lawmakers fund earmarks is very scattershot and sometimes secretive.

Education was one of Gov. Palin's highest priorities - she didn't cut operating funds for schools. But she was death on the "extras" requested by PTAs and booster clubs and alumni associations. Any school can always use extra money for them, but she didn't like the haphazard way some schools got money and others didn't.

She cut $4 million for a public safety building in Nome, even though public safety is a constitutional function of state government. She worried about taking on the future operating costs. Ditto for the $1 million UAA stood to collect to help plan and design a new sports arena.

The governor's budget staff didn't summarize her cuts by election district or by legislator, so it wasn't immediately clear if they were equitably distributed. She did veto a score or so of Mat-Su projects, similar to the type of cuts she inflicted on Anchorage, citing similar reasons.

Gov. Palin also vetoed all $75 million of projects financed by the Railbelt Energy Fund. A big study is still under way to look at how the region's utilities can best coordinate to meet future energy needs. Until that study is done, she felt it was premature to lock money into any specific projects. Good call there.

Legislators could decide to override her vetoes, but they will have to muster a three-quarters supermajority to do so. The reaction over the next few days will tell a lot. Unless lawmakers and the governor are deluged with complaints from unhappy constituents, the Legislature will have trouble reversing the vetoes of a popular governor who ran on a promise of fiscal discipline and dared make good on it.

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