By SEN. SHELLEY HUGHES
The sound of the crowd is at fever pitch. The intensity is explosive. “Reduce the budget”vs. “find new revenues” is the fierce battle of tug-of-war underway in Alaska.
Let’s take a good look at the players.
On the “New Revenue” end, rope fibers fray as two team players struggle for the lead position while audience members break into factions, some fans of “Raise-Oil-Taxes”, others cheering “Raid-the-PFD”, and some ecstatic and googly-eyed because of the potential windfall for government if both players stay in the game and win.
At the same time, a loud bass sound rumbles as a wave in a large packed section in the stands rises and chants boos in unison. The “Hands-off-Our PFDs” crowd boisterously bellows against the “Raid the PFD” challenger. Thundering shouts and another wave pick up in the bleachers from the “Bad-Unfair-Tax” crowd as they rail against the “Raise-Oil Taxes” contestant.
Meanwhile, on the “Reduce the Budget” end of Alaska’s tug-of-war rope, a very tall player with scissors in his pocket is checking the tension on the rope as every few minutes team members, also with scissors in pockets, rotate on the line to lend a hand and give a good, strong tug.
The noisy clamor on this end is not so confusing. It’s just two groups in an uproar. The “Wailing-and-Gnashing-of-Teeth” crowd sobs incessantly that life in Alaska as we know it will end if these guys win. The “Necessary-efficiencies-everyone-duh” crowd rolls their eyes at the wailers, followed by jumps and shouts of glee when they notice their favorite team’s scissors sparkle in the sunlight.
What a scene. Without an emerging victor in sight, could there ever be a more fractured crowd or more opposing forces?
This tug-of-war has been underway for five years. That’s right: five years. Ever since the price of oil dropped.
Here’s the good news. The tug-of-war has to end soon. Why (and this is the bad news)? Savings have dwindled. Incoming revenues don’t match spending. This is catapulting us to a new point, to a crossroads, and we have no choice but to act.
So does that mean one team just all of a sudden needs to pull harder, cause pain and rope-burns, and break the stalemate? That could happen but it’s unlikely – if the last five years mean anything.
At this crossroads, I believe it’s time to ask: Is there a better way? And is it possible for this to end well? The answer to both questions is yes.
I say, it’s time to let go of the rope, everybody. Set it down.
What we need now is pivotal and factual budget information and answers to questions to know whether and where we can reduce and whether and where state services are lacking. And we don’t need political responses to those questions. We need objective, unbiased responses.
What Alaska needs now as we broach this crossroads is an objective, unbiased State Auditor who is independent, neither beholden to the Legislature or to the Governor, but who is accountable to the people of Alaska. State services are for the people and revenues are derived from the people. Who better than the people to hold this position accountable?
We can fight and bicker over whether we need more or less money in the budget along majority/minority or party lines. We can fight based on our own perspectives and biases. We can fight over our most, or our least favorite programs. We can pit one special interest group against another.
But wouldn’t it be better to get factual data, to get expert recommendations with the effectiveness, efficiencies, statute requirements, constitutional obligations of each program, of each division, of each department factored into the equation, from someone who has no skin in the game, from someone who abides by approved standards, principles, and practices, from someone who has the time day in and day out to get into the weeds, from someone who has the skills, the training, the focus and does not stand to benefit one way or the other? Yes, this would be better.
I’ve observed how well this concept has worked on a small scale each year as the auditor we do have (with her small team) under the direction of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee presents reports on limited items, such as on professional boards. The respect for and acceptance of the report and recommendations is typical across the political spectrum. It works quite beautifully, actually.
This is what we need now, budget-wide. Independent, objective audits of each and every program, division, department. Along with recommendations for improved effectiveness and efficiencies, we can also root out fraud and abuse. How is this not a good thing?
Surely this is a better way forward than the tug-of-war. It would be much more of a win-win to boot.
Once we know we’re not spending wastefully, and that we’re spending enough to adequately provide state services, we will have the much-needed budget baseline which can be adjusted annually for inflation. This will give us assurance to address the spending cap that’s over-inflated and outdated in the state constitution; we’ll have confidence that the adjusted cap will be enough but not too much. We will sleep at night knowing we’re not going to sink the next generation.
Very, very importantly: this will also allow us to know if we do need to turn on a new revenue tax spigot. With our very small population, it’s vital to get our budget to the right level. We simply do not have enough people to carry an over-sized budget on our backs. Tax spigots rarely are turned off or down. Starting at a budget baseline that’s too high for our low population and increases that exceed inflation would be harmful for the economy and hard on Alaskans (and undoubtedly spur out-migration from Alaska – resulting in fewer backs to bear the burden).
I’ve spoken about the concept of an objective State Auditor with Alaskans since oil prices dropped. The reception has been warm and welcoming. I think the time is now. If you think so too, please let me, your legislators, and the governor know.
Senator Shelley Hughes represents District F – Chugiak/Palmer.