News-Miner opinion: Gov. Mike Dunleavy deserves a positive review for his decision to hold a series of town hall meetings around Alaska to hear residents’ thoughts about state spending and revenue.
It’s easy to hold such events, though. The big question is this: What will the governor do with the information he receives from these gatherings, which he is calling “Conversations with Alaskans”?
Is this going to be a serious effort to take Alaskans’ ideas into consideration? Or is this just a showy effort to push back against the effort to recall him from office?
We might not know for a long time.
Has the governor already shown an inclination to listen to Alaskans following the strong negative reaction to his budget cuts of last year? Possibly. Maybe that’s why his proposed budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, doesn’t have additional major reductions in spending. That’s a pullback from his position last year, where he indicated additional cuts would be needed.
The proposed budget is roughly the same as what he and the Legislature agreed upon for the current fiscal year during a highly contentious summer.
The governor’s proposal is missing a major component, however: new money.
The Department of Revenue projects a $1.5 billion budget gap for the next fiscal year. How does the governor propose to fill that oversized hole? By spending about 75% of the money remaining in the already low Constitutional Budget Reserve, the only main savings account readily accessible to the Legislature.
We’ve had billions of dollars in deficits in recent years, and there’s no indication the annual shortfalls will end anytime soon. So what’s the long-term plan?
Couple the persistent deficits with the recent plummet in the price of oil, which has fallen sharply this year, and an already urgent situation could become even more dire.
The price of a barrel of oil started the year at $68.39, above the average estimated by the Department of Revenue for the current fiscal year, and reached as high as $70.73 on Jan. 7. Since then, though, the price has tumbled into the $50s, sitting at $56.50 per barrel on Wednesday, the latest price available. That’s well below the state’s latest forecast average of $63.54.
Yes, oil prices are volatile and easily influenced by global events. Today’s low price can quickly morph into tomorrow’s high price. But the low price now is a warning that worse trouble could be ahead for Alaska.
The governor’s town hall meetings can be a valuable component of our continuing fiscal debate, one that has gone on far too long at great cost and without arriving at a solution.
Last year, amid the tumult of Gov. Dunleavy’s budget cuts, many Alaskans loudly expressed their willingness to pay an income tax or a sales tax and to have smaller annual Alaska Permanent Fund dividends.
Often just as loudly, other Alaskans argued for a much smaller state government, no statewide taxes and continued payment of the full dividend in accordance with existing law.
Alaskans of those views and others need to take advantage of the governor’s town hall meetings to express themselves. And the governor should be willing to seriously consider views to which he is presently opposed if those views are the clear will of Alaskans.
The meetings were to have started last week in Petersburg and Wrangell, but bad weather made it unwise for the governor to travel there. A full schedule hasn’t yet been released
The governor had this to say in the announcement of his meetings with Alaskans:
“My hope is that we can set aside the bitter partisanship often driven by outside agendas. If we can work together to solve our fiscal issues this year, I believe Alaska will have a bright and prosperous future.”
Let’s hope so.