They all measure up: three items on ballot deserve support

Posted: Monday, November 01, 2010

Voters in Alaska will be asked to weigh in on two bonding propositions and a ballot measure Tuesday. We encourage them to approve all three proposals.

• Bonding Proposition 'A' would sell up to $600 million in bonds to support mortgages written for veterans. We urge a yes vote on this proposal.

Passage of 'A' would allow the state to continue helping veterans obtain lower interest rates on mortgages. Approval would simply continue a state program already in place. Any issuance of debt can be risky, but certainly no more so than what was risked by veterans to become eligible for this program. A yes vote on 'A' is simply a recognition of the ongoing debt our state and nation owes our military forces - a recognition backed by something other than lip service.

• Bonding Proposition 'B' would sell $397.2 million of bonds to fund 13 education-related projects across the state, including a new library, archives and museum building here in Juneau. We encourage voters to approve this measure.

At first glance, it's easy to be concerned by the creation of nearly $400 million of debt during not only a time of financial uncertainty, but also as Alaska will be paying much of that debt off as oil reserves and the revenue they generate are likely to decline. It's also easy to question the assumption of a large amount of debt when the state has nearly $8 billion set aside in its constitutional reserve fund. If the expenditures are worthy, wouldn't it be simpler to appropriate the cash from there instead of borrowing it?

However, this proposed bonding is a rare case of government being both penny- and pound-wise. A conversation with Deven Mitchell, the executive director of Alaska's Municipal Bond Bank Authority, reveals he expects the state to sell about $200 million of the bonds soon after the measure's passage. This would allow construction on the projects to begin, with the remaining bonds to be sold at a later time to allow completion. Of that $200 million, about $58 million will come from a federal program that allows states to sell education-related bonds at effectively zero percent interest. In short, this means the first batch of bonds will, in total, sell for about 2 to 2.5 percent interest over 20 years. Meanwhile, a five-year CD, a very conservative investment vehicle, purchased by an average person can earn that much in interest. It's reasonable to expect Alaska, with professional investors and a longer time frame, can do much better than that.

Proposition 'B' would give new or like-new schools to three rural villages in desperate need of educational infrastructure. It would give Juneau a new building critical to its ongoing role of serving as the state's capital. It would build new facilities in the University of Alaska system to aid in its mission of providing higher education to the state's next leaders. These are laudable goals we should fund and support.

• Ballot Measure 1 would expand Alaska's Legislature, adding two more senators and four more representatives. We ask voters to approve this measure.

This measure is a simple recognition of two things: Alaska's population is growing, and it is moving. The Anchorage area has nearly 60,000 more people than it did in 1990. The Mat-Su Borough has added nearly 50,000 more in that timeframe. Adding new legislators will limit, if not prevent, those areas from taking legislative seats from rural Alaska, including Southeast, when new districts are drawn for the 2012 election.

It's true fewer legislators means each lawmaker can wield more power. But when legislative districts require a representative to travel more than 1,000 miles from one constituency to another, how can he or she make the visits to the communities necessary to understand the true wishes of the electorate? It's difficult, if not impossible. Measure 1 would not end this problem, but it would prevent it from growing worse.

Of the six states with only one representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, Alaska has the smallest legislature. Measure 1 would merely bump the state past Delaware's 62 delegates, and it would keep it well behind North Dakota (141), South Dakota (105), Vermont (180) and Wyoming (90).

It's not unreasonable for Alaska to maintain four more lawmakers than Delaware, especially considering Alaska is more than 290 times the First State's size. Will these new legislators, along with their staffs and offices, cost the state more? Sure. But we ask voters to look at the cost as an investment in meaningful democracy and fundamental fairness, and approve Measure 1.

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