News-Miner opinion: Alaska two years ago escaped from having its first state government shutdown. The Alaska House and Senate each approved the final negotiated budget on June 22, 2017, and then-Gov. Bill Walker signed it into law on July 1 — the start of the 2017-18 fiscal year.
You can’t cut it much closer than that.
The situation was a mess. Alaska was facing a deficit of about $3 billion at the time. The House and Senate budgets differed sharply. State employees received notices informing them they would be out of work if the government had to shut down on July 1.
Two years prior to that, in 2015, the Legislature didn’t pass a budget until mid-June. It had to get done in a special session, again after layoff warnings had been sent out to state employees.
And here we are once more, in 2019, without a state budget and with the Legislature in a special session that so far has produced zero. And, once again, layoff warnings have been sent to state employees.
Alaska has a divided government. We have a Republican governor, a Republican-led Senate, and a Democratic-led coalition in the House. In such a situation, compromise is the only way out.
Compromise should not be seen as an action to be avoided. It should not be viewed as a sign of weakness. Rather, compromising in such situations should be seen as a sign of strength, leadership and a willingness to get things done for the benefit of the state.
Governing isn’t a game in which the goal is to defeat the other side.
Alaska has a significant financial problem, which is the source of the budget stalemate in Juneau. We currently don’t take in enough revenue to continue with the level of expenses of recent years. Our easily accessible savings accounts are running terribly low. Alaskans have expressed a range of views on how to solve the problem, with many supporting a reinstatement of an income tax and others arguing that the budget must still be reduced further.
Alaskans have been seeing the effects of cutbacks that have already occurred. The University of Alaska has had its budget reduced sharply in recent years. Courthouse hours have been reduced. The Alaska Permanent Fund dividend has been reduced three times. In July 2018, Gov. Walker, who would lose reelection a few months later, tried to get Alaskans to understand that his administration had reduced state spending by 44%, or $1.7 billion, from 2013’s level.
The financial problem isn’t going to get solved in one more year. The budget that Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed was never going to get through the Legislature intact. What it did accomplish, however, was something important: a hastening of the understanding that our situation is dire. And for that the governor deserves much credit.
But now is the time for the governor and the two chambers of the Legislature to compromise.
The new fiscal year starts 30 days from today. If Alaska’s government has to shut down because the state doesn’t have a budget, if state employees stop getting paid, if the services Alaskans need aren’t there, the blame will fall equally on the Senate, the House and the governor. It will also fall somewhat on Alaskans who demonize those elected officials who do have the courage to compromise.
Alaska needs leaders who can stand tall and compromise, both on the budget for the coming year and in the longer-term approach to wrestle our state’s finances back to solid ground.