Community Perspective

A state auditor can help end Alaska’s fiscal tug of war 

 

The sound of the crowd is at fever pitch. The intensity is explosive. Reduce the budget versus find new revenues is the fierce tug-of-war battle underway in Alaska.

On the “New Revenue” end, rope fibers fray as two players struggle for the lead while audience members break into factions, some of them fans of “Raise Oil Taxes,” others cheering “Raid the PFD,” and some ecstatic because of the potential windfall for government if both win.

Simultaneously, a bass sound rumbles as a wave in the stands rises and chants boos in unison. The “Hands Off Our PFDs” crowd boisterously bellows against the “Raid the PFD” challenger. Another thunderous wave picks up from the “Bad Unfair Tax” crowd, railing against the “Raise Oil Taxes” contestant.

Meanwhile, on the “Reduce the Budget” end of Alaska’s tug-of-war rope, a tall player with scissors in his pocket checks the tension on the rope as teammates, also carrying scissors, rotate to give a good, strong tug.

The uproar on this end isn’t so confusing. It’s just two groups. 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 gleeful shouts when they notice their 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 oil prices 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 crossroads; we have no choice but to act.

So must one team simply pull harder, cause painful rope burns, and break the stalemate? That could happen but it’s unlikely, if the last five years have shown us anything.

At this crossroads, I believe it’s time to ask: Is there a better way? Is it possible for this to end well? The answer to both questions is yes.

It’s time to let go of the rope, everybody. Set it down.

What we need now is factual budget information to know whether and where we can reduce and whether and where state services are lacking. We don’t need political responses. We need apolitical, unbiased answers.

What Alaska needs now is a state auditor who is independent and objective, neither beholden to the Legislature nor to the governor but is accountable to the people. State services are for the people and revenues are derived from the people. Who better to hold this position accountable?

We can bicker along majority/minority or party lines. We can fight over our most or 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 factored into the equation? From someone who has no skin in the game, abides by approved standards and principles, has a team that can get into the weeds? Yes, this would be better.

This concept has worked on a small scale. Our legislative auditor annually reports on limited items, such as licensure boards. Her recommendations are well-accepted across the political spectrum. It works beautifully.

This is what we need now, budget-wide. Along with improved effectiveness and efficiencies, we can also root out fraud and abuse. How is this not a good thing?

The result: We will have a budget baseline that 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 importantly, this will allow us to know annually if we need new revenue or not. With our small population, it’s vital to know our budget baseline. We simply do not have enough people to carry an oversized budget on our backs. Tax spigots rarely are turned off or down. A baseline that’s too high and increases that exceed inflation would be harmful for the economy and hard on Alaskans, undoubtedly spurring outmigration, leaving fewer backs to bear the burden.

I’ve spoken about this state auditor concept 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 inform your elected officials.

Sen. Shelley Hughes is a Republican representing District F, the Chugiak and Palmer regions.

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