Some states would be envious of Alaska even in our worst budget times, but once again financial fortune has smiled on this state and the result will be hundreds of millions of unexpected dollars into its lap.
Revenue from record-high oil prices likely will close the state's $360 million budget gap and send an additional $500 million to its general fund. This rare stroke of luck isn't going to last forever and state leaders therefore need to make sure the extra income isn't squandered.
Education is at the top of the list of items that need greater funding. Juneau is not the only city in the state in which teachers struggle with classrooms of more than 30 students. Key to improving education in this state is reducing class size by increasing the state's allocation to schools. Gov. Frank Murkowski already has called for a $126 million increase in spending for K-12 education over the next two years. The Alaska Legislature needs to follow up on that and make sure that some of this fleeting wealth brings improvements in classrooms across the state.
The Murkowski administration also is looking at putting money back into social-service programs, many of which have been trimmed in recent years. The governor is proposing $6 million for children's services, $1.5 million for juvenile justice and $7.1 million for preventing drug and alcohol abuse. These are all wise investments and could save the state money down the road, particularly in the criminal justice system.
With its financial windfall, the state needs to make sure that it avoids two things: using the money for pet capital projects and leaving cities to struggle on their own.
Too many schools and other public buildings are in need of maintenance that has been delayed because of tight budgets in recent years. These need to be brought up to par before money is frittered away on new capital projects, which will in time need maintenance of their own.
Most importantly, though, Alaska's legislators cannot leave cities out in the cold financially. Lawmakers have failed to take real action to solve the state's long-term budget problems. Too worried about their own political careers, legislators haven't made the tough decisions that are needed on broad-based taxes, increasing revenue from the oil industry or other measures that would bring long-term financial stability. What lawmakers have done is shift the burden to cities by slashing their state funding.
As revenue sharing with cities has been cut, local governments statewide have had to increase property taxes by 33 percent and at least 30 rural communities have had to cut essential services, such as road maintenance or public safety, according to the Alaska Conference of Mayors. Ten small towns have had to drop their municipal insurance program, which covers workers' compensation, natural disasters and other costs.
With the unexpected oil revenues, the state needs to share the wealth and restore funds to its Municipal Revenue Sharing Program. Many of Alaska's small cities are desperate for a financial boost because of belt-tightening in recent years, and it's only fair that this windfall of cash should be used to bring them some relief.
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