Alaska editorial: Candidates need to remember there are limits to state treasury

Posted: Tuesday, October 03, 2006

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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Promising what's popular is a good way to get elected. But there should be limits, or at least an accounting of how to pay for all the promises.

Oil prices are down more than $16.50 a barrel from this summer's record high. North Slope production is far below expectations. And with at least a $500 million price tag next year to start covering the shortfall in public employee and teachers' retirement funds, candidates need to remember the state treasury is not a bottomless tank. Despite the higher oil taxes adopted by legislators this year, the state's cash flow could someday point to empty.

That's why candidates should be cautious about promising too much, and voters should be wary of accepting all of the gifts handed to them in campaign speeches.

No doubt restoring monthly longevity bonus checks for senior citizens is a good way to win their votes; no doubt many seniors need help. And promising to bring back state revenue sharing for municipalities is making candidates for governor popular with city officials and property tax payers who would like some help carrying the budget load.

Gov. Frank Murkowski canceled both programs his first year in office, after giving no such indication during his successful campaign for the job. Voters never forgave him for what they saw as his election deceit.

What better way to win this year's campaign for governor than by promising to restore popular programs that an unpopular governor eliminated. (In fairness to the candidates, they are not the only ones clamoring to restore revenue sharing. The Daily News has long advocated bringing back the program, but with a sustainable funding source immune from oil-price swings, such as Permanent Fund earnings.)

Democratic candidate for governor Tony Knowles has pledged to bring back the senior citizen checks and state aid to municipalities. He also has other ideas, including a new, state-funded $100 monthly "Patriot's Bonus" for Alaska National Guardsmen and women serving in combat zones. And he is telling voters he wants the state to grant National Guard members a 50 percent tuition waiver at the University of Alaska as a signing incentive.

Nothing wrong with either proposal, and many Guard members and their families could use the help. But what is the cost, and should they be additions to the budget or should something else drop out to make room for them?

Mr. Knowles' Republican opponent, Sarah Palin, also says she would restore revenue sharing and the longevity bonus. The two programs could easily total $100 million a year in new state spending. Meanwhile, Ms. Palin's Web site says she supports "aggressive spending reductions." Huh? Which is it, cuts or added spending?

Another candidate in the race, independent Andrew Halcro, has it right when he says: "We live in a sound-bite world, where people want easy answers. ... We've cultivated an entitlement mentality in Alaska." Eventually, Mr. Halcro added, "The bill for lunch will be paid by all Alaskans."

Mr. Halcro is right. We hope all the candidates will keep a running tally as they fill the state's shopping cart, then tell voters what they would do if revenues fall and they come up short at the check-out stand.

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