Bob Bell: We need a Legislature that looks out for us, not for themselves - Must Read Alaska
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Tuesday, August 3, 2021
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Bob Bell: We need a Legislature that looks out for us, not for themselves

By BOB BELL

The state legislature is going through a convoluted and dysfunctional budgeting process. Those of us who follow this debacle every year hope for a better outcome but are consistently disappointed.

The standard refrain is we have to find new revenue to make up for the loss of oil money as production and prices fall. They also lament that there is very little room to cut any more from state spending. We are expected to take all this at face value because our state officials are working so hard to “look out for us.”  Well, maybe not!

The state budget is a very complicated and devious animal. It is impossible for the average citizen or, for that matter, the average legislator to understand or analyze. As noted above, we just have to take it at face value.

So, let’s take a look at a couple of examples of state spending we can understand and analyze just to get a feel on how well they are “Looking out for us”. 

As of 2020, we have 96 state employees who make more than $200,000 a year, 25 of whom make more than $300,000. On top of that they get, up to, 60% of their pay in retirement plus health insurance and other benefits. This list does not even include the University of Alaska and the Alaska Railroad employees, which would probably double their numbers.

The average Alaskan makes $36,700 a year. The average state employee makes $70,000 plus, almost double.

Talk about living high on the hog. You have to ask if the state is in such dire straits that they have to tax the average Alaskan who makes $36,700 more to pay for state employees who are paid twice as much, are they really looking out for us?

Another part of the budget we can understand and analyze is the state school system. To be fair, some of the school administration costs are covered by local governments, but the state pays out about $1.3 billion for K-12 every year.

Alaska has 54 school districts. Some of these districts only have two or three schools, but they all have a superintendent with an average salary of $184,903 plus benefits of about 30%. Therefore, the cost of 54 superintendents is about $ 10 million to $13 million plus staff cost.

Why don’t we have six school districts? Anchorage, Fairbanks/Interior, North Slope, Western Alaska, Southeast, and Southwest Alaska? Now our superintendent cost is closer to one million than ten.

The question that arises is, are these two examples indicative of other items buried in the bowels of the convoluted and devious budget, the part the average citizen can’t access or analyze?

It would seem the only way  we could access this data is to get our $200,000- to $400,000-a-year state employees to make it available to us in a format we can understand. Of course, that might result in us wondering why there are so many of them and why they are paid so much. It’s probably not going to happen.

Maybe the solution to this is for our legislators, who are “looking out for us” and their staffs to dig into the fine details of state spending, and then eliminate excessive and wasteful items. The problem is, this would put them in conflict with the public employee unions who carry a very big political stick due to all the taxpayer money they have to spend on political campaigns. It also gets them crosswise with all the state employees they work with every day who support their offices.

Seems like a Catch 22. Maybe the best we can do is to try and elect people who meet these criteria:

  1. They are successful in their careers, so they don’t need a job. It is a public service to them.
  2. They are not running to satisfy their ego.
  3. They have the skills to see past political smoke screens from both staff and other politicians.
  4. They truly want to make things better.

In an ideal world all our elected officials and government employees would be well educated, successful and publicly minded people. They would tend to our public needs with dedication and hard work. Wouldn’t that be nice?

We are probably not going to get to 100%, but maybe more than 50% if we put in the effort. We need people who meet the criteria noted above to be willing to step up and run for office. The rest of us have to support them with time and money. To quote Plato, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics, is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” This is getting close to being true for us.

So, who is going to step up to run for office?  We need people who can really dig into the budget and who can see past politics to do what is right. We need folks who will truly represent us, the people.

Politics is a dirty business. Maybe it is time to get our hands dirty and elect a legislature we can trust to “Look out for us.”

Bob Bell is a civil engineer who ran for House in 2012 and is the author of Oh No! We’re Gonna Die Too: More Humorous Tales of Close Calls in Alaska’s Wilderness

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  • The legislators, including their staffs don’t have their eyes on God, so they can care less what He thinks of them. I don’t know what kind of church Rep. Sara Rasmussen attends and who she referred to as Christian during her leg wrestling apology, but if they were Christian they’d never be around the likes of Landfield and Fields, at least not as besties.

    Until Alaskans are on their knees recognizing our folly and foolishness in humble repentance we’ll continue being deceived and disappointed electing the same confused Alaskans.

    I bet the members spent more time in the Capital and less time attending a Juneau church. The Glacier Church of God is a good Juneau church if you want the Word and be around church members who don’t care about your titles. They will just give you the honest Word.

  • My favorite statistic for judging State spending is the number of “funded positions” in state government. This number is provided by Legislative Finance and is a pretty exact number, while the actual number of State employees varies due to retirements, vacancies, hiring, etc. What can the number of funded positions tell us?
    As a Senate Finance aide, retired, I can offer two data points: in 1998/9 there were 15,000 positions. Which we knew was way to many, but we didn’t want to slash the number of employees and crater the economy with oil at $10/bbl. When tried previously by Cowper and the D’s in the House, it crashed banks, and led an ex banker to run for US Senate, who later appointed his daughter to the Senates. Instead the goal was to constrain the growth of government, trimming as much as possible.
    Almost 20 years of trimming and constraint later, in 2018 we had cut the number of State employees all the way down to 23,000.
    I’m told it peaked at 25k during the Walker administration. But I fear asking what the number is today. I also suspect mist legislators do not know the answer, and may not even know how to ask for it.
    Why do we need so many State employees?
    There are several problems in cutting the budget. First are the clueless who think we can find “efficiencies” “eliminate redundancies” and somehow achieve reductions in State spending. Ain’t no such-a-thang. And if there were ya’ll have to be both smarter and harder working to find it than the 23,000 State workers determined to keep their positions of profit. Good luck.
    Second, understand that State employees carry out tasks defined in Statute. (The law.) E.g.: The PFD is set out in statute, but wait, So is everything each employee does. Want to cut the budget substantially? Ya’ll’s a gonna have to change the law.
    So the task of cutting the budget has to include passing Bill’s to repeal or modify the tasks required by State employees.
    Yes, failure to appropriate funds for a task, such as sending out pfd’s, or for DNR to conduct land planning activities (was 100 plus positions back in 1999) takes the agreement of a majority if Legislators, committee chairs, hearings, public notice, and all the Constitutionally required hoopla needed to change the law DNR follows.
    Quick Side Note: Governor can’t do it alone.
    A third problem requires following the money. Each State employee position prospectively pays +/- $70/month in union dues, or about $20m, mostly to Vinney B. (I know you are absolutely shocked to know this, but wait you’re reading MRAK, so maybe not. HA!) Vinney B writes out nice big checks to candidates. Almost exclusively to the party arguing that we need more State employees to provide XXX service. Its way easier for a candidate to get a nice $5000 check from Vinny than to have to individually convince 10 Alaskans to contribute the max $500 to your campaign.
    (True, at the end of 30 years a typical State employee could buy a nice car had he/she/they put the dues into their State savings account, with its statutorily set 4.5% interest rate. Instead, on retirement, the employee has nothing, not even membership in the Union. (Woah, didn’t see that coming did ya!)
    Conclusion: The governor cant go it alone, while he/she can submit flat or reduced budgets to the Legislature and his Commissioners and Directors could support the reductions, the Legislature typically ignores it. If he/she/we had a Legislatie majority in alignment with the goal to reduce State government to a level we can afford, and expended the huge effort needed to rewrite State statutes so as to focus State employees efforts, there might be a chance of getting to an affordable level of government.
    Can’t happen with the current makeup.
    No, we can’t afford the unbelievably huge government we now have. But that’s another story.

  • Nice thoughts, but as one who once attempted minor office only to be brutally personally attacked AND have children subjected to demeaning persecution by progressives, most decent people no longer have the stomach for public office. Look at what they did to Trump, so far every accusation proven false yet still they continue. Or compare Mike Flynn to John Kerry for ‘violating’ the Logan Act.
    Bob, I 100% agree with you, and we need to get the meanest spirited people that we can find and we need to stand behind them no matter how deep progressives try to drag them into the sewer. We need George Patton. And we need to break the AEA and other public employee unions.

  • You were doing great, right up to the part about in a perfect world.. highly educated…. Legislators and government employees…..

    Bob, Juneau is plumb packed with highly educated and to some point, overly educated people, running everything. Starting with the boondoggle of a ferry system everyone uses at some point or time to get there.

    My though is that you can have a room full engineers or a roomful or Generals and Admirals, that overflows with masterful ideas, but without having Master Chiefs, Sargents or Mechanics, it would be a small miracle too see masterful ideas ever come to fruitation, nevermind on schedule or more importantly, under budget….. Which the legislature has famously malfunctioned for the last six years.

    Maybe the party leadership needs to wipe their snobby nose and look for people that have more common sense than education. Out in the bush where guys with minimal education can interbreed three different brands of outboards to get a motor running and get the boat a hundred miles back to home, have a different perspective on college educated people. We saw a bunch of them, the last few day of the session prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they’re nothing more than overeducated college idiots.

    Now lets see if these guys are sharp enough to prevent the reverse sweep, cut education by a third, pass election reform and finally recognize that the PFD doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the budget.

    P.S. also recognize that PCE is worthless as tits on a boar hog if it’s not fixing the infrastructure, instead of being used as a never ending worthless subsidy.

  • Right ON!! The Budget is not a budget but a list of ever increasing special interest spending that was NEVER going to be sustainable. Time to take the budget apart and start discarding the chafe.

  • Top State salaries do not come close to the private sector for top level positions that require experience and management skills. Do you really want the PF managed by a $36,700 worker? We do need better technology to manage more effectively, not the additional political favoritism Dunleavy seeks with additional executive positions.

  • Mr. Bell

    Spot on, as is typical. However, even if one could find the truly “take care of the people” candidate, there’s more than 3 strikes against them:
    1) To get elected, “taking care of the people” has come to mean “what more will you promise that government can do for me?”…not “here’s what can be done to reduce the size and burden of government.” A candidate intending to reduce the State budget will automatically generate opposition from all the groups (public employees, other government units, etc) for whom the benefits of extravagant state spending outweigh the (fairly attenuated) direct impacts on them.
    2) Pushed in large degree by the progressives, a successful career outside of politics is viewed as automatic bias against “the people”. Strange how a lifelong career in politics never gets the same view as being biased towards government overreach
    3) The ascendancy of the bureaucracy means that any efforts to reduce spending will be opposed not only by the targeted bureaucrats but by other bureaucrats who want to avoid being the target for the next cut
    4) People with principle and courage are vilified in the media as being “out of touch” “rigid” (mostly) “right wing”.
    5) ….and heaven help the candidate or legislator in today’s environment that dares to say that “less government” is good or that “the government governs best which governs least.” The mantra that government knows all that is best has become holy writ.

  • One of the biggest expenses for rural school districts is transportation. You have to fly teachers support staff to meetings. Maintenance personnel have to fly all around keeping the school up and running. It looks like administration is always looking for a ride into Anchorage to justify doing a little shopping. You have to fly basketball teams and other sports personnel to competitions. Some of these bills cost $10,000 a weekend. I agree, we should consolidate superintendents and districts that are smaller in size. That might be worth looking into as well as trimming another pork off of the budget in an attempt to save the PFD. One thing I forgot to mention is districts fly their board members to a sort of camp setting meeting. All this needs to be cut. Teams need to play locally. Upriver, downriver short hops by plane. Alaska is spread out so far the transportation costs are astronomical. Hundreds of thousands of dollars could be saved each year out of just one district alone.

  • Our spineless Legislators, both past & present, need to finish the job of organizing all areas of the State into Boroughs so that they may levy property taxes on private landowners. Even if it is an insignificant amount, it is not fair that some areas of the State are forced to pay for their services while other areas get a free ride. This was a condition of Congress granting statehood to Alaska. I don’t want to hear the BS about there being no economic base in these areas. There are tens of thousands of acres in remote sections of organized Boroughs that have been taxed for years. Do your jobs Legislators & stop trying to rob Alaskans PFD’s!

  • FISHING FOR FOOD, the last thing that citizens need is more taxes. Rather than looking for more, you should be advocating for relief of those overburdened.

  • GREG FORKNER, I know that in at least one district where I worked that greater than 50% of school budget was transportation. Virtual meetings and…..in many cases virtual classrooms.

  • How about GOD Fearing, Men and Women

  • Good job Mr. Bell, thank you. My brief experience working in State Government was in 1973 and 1974. I worked for the State Senate. The kind of Public Service minded Men and Women you mention were then serving in office. People like John Rader, Chancy Croft, Robert Ziegler and good old Bill Ray on the Democratic side along with the likes of John Butrovich, Terry Miller, Kay Poland and C.R. Lewis on the Republican side. All of these men and women had successful career’s outside of government. Their service to Alaska actually cost them personally. None of the members were elected because they needed a job.

    What to do now? Sour the damn milk, that’s what! First off, go back to the old system before Oil Money when the State coffers were pretty skinny. Begin with zero office space for elected officials unless they are Chair’s of important committees like Finance. Cut all Staffing for legislators unless they are Chairs of committee’s like Finance who actually need staff, (we are talking a couple of bean counters here). Enough with having an office in Juneau and one at Home plus full time aids to get you coffee and so forth. Reduce or eliminate the Per Diem paid to Legislators. How is that for a start?

    The Guv is a fool if he doesn’t follow a similar path. Begin with a 15% pay cut for all appointed office holders. Dunleavy his badself should take a 20% cut. Such actions would only add up to a small sum compared with the Leviathan that is the State Budget but it sets a direction and charts a course. Be lean and mean, which will enable one to become, mobile, agile and hostile!

  • Since our legislators are greedy, spineless, and inept, let’s let God do it. Just turn it over to Him and wait for everything to turn out just the way we want it.
    If that fails, having smart people doing the job might be a solution. That is not necessarily who we have there now, at least not from the Valley. Their simple solutions to complex problems, mainly, don’t pay for anything unless it’s with federal money and tell people what they can’t do, haven’t seemed to work.
    I agree it’s time for a change. Since the REPUBLICANS have been in charge since the turn of the millennium, maybe we should give the Democrats a shot at it. To quote an out-of-work politician asking a rhetorical question, “What the hell do you have to lose?”

  • AK, where I worked, it was probably more than that. We began cutting back non-essential travel, and doing more fundraisers at a local level if teams wanted to fly out of district. Benefits are a huge part of any bottom line. A district has to offer competitive salaries or they wouldn’t even be able to fill the positions that they’re having a hard time filling now. I don’t want to turn this into a bad teacher low test score thing because I’ve always advocated that it’s the parents who are to blame and not the quality of teachers. The it takes a village to raise a kid is true in more ways than one. And many villages where I’ve lived and worked, it took other people looking out after kids to keep them safe and fed. In some cases that wasn’t enough and children died. Getting back on topic, it’s expensive to have state-run schools in the bush. I know that to be true, but there are a multitude of ways districts can trim the budget, if they would.

  • @Greg Forkner raises some good points. It’s not clear cut and it’s not going to be easy, but there are things that can be done.
    If that’s not specific enough, then I don’t have the answer. Usually, ‘though not always, Finland seems to figure it out.

  • This is by far the BEST article I’ve read regarding the economic plight in AK … GREAT Job Bob Bell!!!. Also, great comment by Bruce Campbell (I’ve always liked Bruce and glad he’s still kicking around).

    Ideally, the best two solutions are … 1) Continue to “aggressively” develop any-and-all of AK O&G – Mineral resources on Federal and State lands and, 2) Immediately, implement “across-the-board” cuts to salaries and wages, as well as, reduce every State budget by no less than 25% (including lay-offs). However, neither of these (1 or 2) will occur without courage and-or willpower. AND, it’s abundantly clear that courage and willpower are woefully lacking in AK, simply outnumbered by Academic Idiots – Ideologs, Ignorant – Irresponsible Citizens and, thieving Union Bosses.

    So, it seems as if there’s only two real options available to us “Right Brain” Engineers … 1) Continue the good fight, trying to make meaningful progress or, 2) Just let the State of AK implode, picking up the pieces and rebuild it later on down the road.

  • As a former state employee, I saw plenty of year-end spending sprees for the sake of spending, because we couldn’t return money back to the general fund. A former supervisor took the State for a ride and earned two million miler awards with Alaska Airlines during her employment and travel on official State business. All State employees, supervisors, legislators (House & Senate), staffers, etc. should have to pool their air miles into a common mileage account and not personally benefit from official State travel.

  • Thanks to Bob Bell and Bruce Campbell, thoughtful essayists both.
    .
    Another favorite is the 421 lines of special interests in Alaska’s Lobbyist Directory.
    .
    Don’t have to be a state employee to add up what special interests pay lobbyists annually, monthly, hourly, to buy or lease Alaska’s politicians.
    .
    May be the tip of the iceberg for all we know…
    .
    Yet another favorite is MRAK’s legislative update, a real eye opener on the passel of hogs squealing for spots at the public trough…
    .
    Notice none of that crowd advocates for poor schlubs whose lives and livelihoods were wrecked by their government’s China flu panic.
    .
    That’s why we refer to the franchise as Alaska’s lobbyist-legislator team.
    .
    Can’t believe the state-employee industry’s too big to sink. We’re stuck with them and more just because (badly managed) state banks might fail and Alaska’s economy depends absolutely on getting (and keeping) state employees on the payroll?
    .
    Won’t be easy, Alaska’s Lobbyist Directory shows state employee and banking industries own or lease politicians too.
    .
    Of course, state employees carry out tasks defined in Statute, what might work in productive Alaskans’ favor is that Statute doesn’t require hiring, or keeping, a dozen state employees to do a job one can do.
    .
    Sure and following the money can be a daunting task, especially when our lobbyist-legislator team rat-holes it in places like the Alaska Municipal League or the Denali Commission, safely out of taxpayers’ reach.
    .
    But… that’s why we have forensic audits, federal RICO law; people like Jim Crawford who “… discovered Alaska’s “Comprehensive Annual Financial Report” (CAFR), required by federal law. The CAFR is the audited financial statement report that shows the actual income and expense and balance sheets of our whole state government.

    The report shows anyone exactly how our Alaska money is managed.

    You can find it at doa . alaska . gov/dof/reports/resource/2019cafr.pdf.

    Studying the CAFR reveals one truth: managing assets through legislative appropriation is not working.” (mustreadalaska.com/alaska-is-not-broke/)
    .
    Another 1980’s style exodus might help too. Seems like our lobbyist-legislator team’s spending the state into oblivion, smacking productive Alaskans down with China flu panic, trying to kick ’em with income and sales taxes, while the Biden-Harris team beats ’em with inflation and more taxes, while state employees get pay raises to offset these inconveniences. Why should productive people stay? Exodus redux, no?
    .
    Wait ’til Somebody Important figures out the left-behinds can’t be taxed enough to make up the difference, then the state’ll shed employees (and Beltramis) faster than a drowning dog sheds fleas…
    .
    Fiscal reform probably won’t happen with the current makeup. Wouldn’t put that makeup on a drag queen’s face.
    .
    Bottom line is we got to figure out how to beat these sons of(hey!) really bad at their own game, so they don’t come back any time soon.

  • AK FISH Several years ago, the State of Alaska tried collecting all miles flown by State employers and it was determined illegal; the miles had to be awarded to the person flying.

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