State lawmakers face an ambivalent public as they weigh long-term fixes for the state budget, according to a new poll.
But members of the bipartisan Fiscal Policy Caucus say they're now taking the lead, at least in the House, and will push for votes on major fiscal issues in the 2002 session.
The Republican majority caucus in the House recently commissioned a poll of registered voters that brought a mix of good and bad news for advocates of a long-range budget-balancing plan.
A majority of respondents, 52.5 percent, say that things are "going pretty well" for the state fiscally. Yet almost 69 percent say the state's projected fiscal gap $1 billion in 2005 is somewhat, very or extremely serious.
Resistance to use of earnings from the Alaska Permanent Fund remains high, even for the "surplus" remaining after dividends are paid and the principal is inflation-proofed. Nearly half of the respondents 47.6 percent strongly disagreed that those earnings should be used to help balance the state budget, and another 12.7 percent mildly disagreed.
A majority, 52.5 percent, said the state budget has been cut enough, while about a third said it should be cut more.
Narrowly focused taxes are popular, but not the broad-based ones that number-crunchers say are necessary to stabilize state revenues. There's majority support for increasing taxes on alcohol and levying a new tax on cruise ship passengers, but not for reinstating the income tax, passing a statewide, year-round sales tax or increasing fuel taxes. Respondents were split about evenly on higher oil taxes and a seasonal sales tax.
The poll numbers, which House Speaker Brian Porter said he found discouraging, were discussed at a retreat of the House Republican caucus Friday and Saturday in Anchorage.
"We basically agreed ... that whatever direction the Fiscal Policy Caucus comes up with when we get to Juneau, that's the direction the (Republican) caucus will take," said Rep. Andrew Halcro of Anchorage.
That's not to say that the bipartisan group has "a green light" to get anything enacted, Halcro added. House Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican who is the chief budget-writer in the House, didn't return phone calls.
The Fiscal Policy Caucus has scheduled its own retreat Nov. 30-Dec. 1 with the intention of deciding what elements of a long-range plan should be pursued in the 2002 session.
There's a 50-50 chance in the next session of a House floor vote on a broad-based tax, estimated Rep. Jim Whitaker, a Fairbanks Republican.
Rep. Peggy Wilson, a Wrangell Republican, held a public meeting in Wrangell Monday night in which she said 25 community leaders had an animated discussion of the budget options.
But there's a long way to go in convincing the public of the urgency of the problem, said Rep. Con Bunde, an Anchorage Republican who is vice chairman of the House Finance Committee. He predicted that the Fiscal Policy Caucus won't make much of a dent.
"Bless them, but I've been there, done that," he said. "... I'm convinced that when information comes from the Legislature, it's contaminated."
Bunde said outside groups, such as Alaskans United, will have to make the case to the public.
In 2002, the question might be whether the Fiscal Policy Caucus will use its potential clout. There are about a dozen members of the 28-member majority caucus in the House who are members of the Fiscal Policy Caucus. With most of the 12 minority Democrats also active, the bipartisan group constitutes a majority of the House.
Rep. Ken Lancaster, a Soldotna Republican and member of the Fiscal Policy Caucus, said he might be willing to "roll" committee chairmen who stand in the way of new revenue measures.
Former Republican Gov. Jay Hammond, who still weighs in forcefully on fiscal issues, said it's essential.
"My message to the Legislature is you're not going to do a thing until you yank bills out of committee," Hammond said. "All these special interests have to have in their pocket is one powerful committee chairman, and they're home free."
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