News-Miner opinion: As the state grapples with its budget deficit, it appears Gov. Walker’s administration and members of the Legislature are looking to offload debt responsibility to municipalities. Specifically, the Alaska Department of Administration notified municipal governments in September that the state would expect them to be responsible for a share of pension obligations under the Alaska Public Employee Retirement System and Teacher Retirement System.
The move is a continuation of state efforts to redefine the liability for Alaska pensions, and one that may lead to a court fight about the state and municipal reponsibility for such debt.
The Legislature in 2008 passed a bill that, in addition to changing the pension systems from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution scheme, fixed the amount of unfunded liability that would be borne by municipalities for PERS
(22 percent) and TRS (12.56 percent). Under the legislation, the municipal amortization of that debt would end in 2030.
But subsequent legislation in 2014 redefined the end of the the amortization period as 2039, substantially increasing the amount of municipal liability.
And in August of this year, Attorney General Craig Richards issued an opinion holding that the state isn’t responsible for certain pension liabilities, shifting those liabilities to boroughs as well. Some municipalities, such as the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, have objected to the attorney general’s position, calling it a further redefining of state debt that could cost municipalities tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars apiece.
The pension debt fight is likely to grow in intensity as the state seeks redefinition of debt liability that would lessen its own burden. It also intensifies the legal fights already underway between boroughs and the state about which entity is responsible for education funding, another venue in which boroughs are crying foul about financial penalties not borne by unorganized areas. Any way you look at it, it’s a mess.
A forecast Christmas cold snap was both shorter and less intense than expected, with temperatures diving briefly toward 30 below at the beginning of the holiday weekend. But by Saturday, thermometers had climbed back to positive territory. What’s more, warm temperatures are forecast for Fairbanks and North Pole throughout this week. A winter that has so far not included extended stretches of 20 below or colder looks like it will remain temperate — at least through the end of the year.
The news isn’t as good, however, for Delta Junction and the eastern Interior. An incoming system will bring extremely strong winds to those areas, with gusts forecast in some areas to approach hurricane strength. Some winds already are blowing there, and a second storm is forecast to arrive Tuesday night with gusts as strong as 90 miles per hour.
Under any circumstances, winds that strong — characterized by the National Weather Service as potentially of “record proportions” — would be a serious concern. In the middle of winter, the danger of residential and infrastructure damage poses a much greater threat to Alaskans in the area. Residents are warned to secure loose property and to prepare their houses — as meteorologists have said, the dangerous winds “could cause significant damage to structures.” Those planning on driving on the Alaska and Richardson highways should take extra precautions, as travel could be much more dangerous while the winds are blowing.