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:
- They are successful in their careers, so they don’t need a job. It is a public service to them.
- They are not running to satisfy their ego.
- They have the skills to see past political smoke screens from both staff and other politicians.
- 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