For too long the Legislature has been consumed with a debate about redistributing wealth through dividends. Instead, we should be having a debate about how to create wealth and grow the economy. What investments in human capital and physical infrastructure could lead to long-term economic growth? How can Alaska be the best place in America to live, work and invest?
This debate about growth must not wait: For the fourth year in a row, Alaska has lost population and a cumulative 46,000 jobs. Now the governor has proposed the largest dividends ever, funded by taxes on Alaskans. I’m fine considering taxes if there are targeted investments with positive ROI. But I fail to see how writing a check to the state, then receiving some money back in a dividend, has any positive impact on economic growth. To the contrary, middle class families will pay double taxes when they receive dividends back. When oil revenue could fund big dividends and state operations and capital investments, a big dividend made sense. That is no longer our fiscal reality.
If we are going to raise taxes, we should prioritize programs with a positive return on investment while continuing to pursue cost-saving and efficiency measures. Here are common sense investments we should consider:
• Invest in infrastructure: Roads, ports, harbors, as well as recreational infrastructure that boosts tourism. This year the Legislature finally invested beyond the bare-minimum state match for federal highway and airport dollars, but not nearly at the level needed to maintain much less improve our infrastructure. No high-growth nation has crumbling highways, runways with potholes or deteriorating ports. In addition, we lag far behind other states and nations in tourism infrastructure like trails and huts. Finally, we have to strengthen our ferry system that is essential for commerce and for expanding independent traveler visitation in Southeast Alaska.
• Invest in human capital, from early childhood through college: To expand availability of child care, we should use newly available federal funds more efficiently in consultation with industry. A lack of adequate child care is preventing productive individuals from re-entering the workforce. Quality childhood education improves workforce readiness and productivity, leading to long term improvements in economic output. Also, let’s create the best public university system in America. Start with a strategic investment to hire five of the best professors in America, and offer salaries at double the rates offered by any other university — even the Ivies. With more internationally-renowned faculty, we will attract more top students and spur the kind of innovation that has led to strong economic growth in regions like Austin, Silicon Valley and the Research Triangle. Finally, let’s make pre-K universal as proposed by legislators like Sen. Tom Begich.
• Transform our energy system, bringing down energy costs to save consumers money and make our businesses more competitive. Alaska is strategically positioned at a crossroads for international commerce, but our electricity is orders of magnitude more expensive than most places in the Lower 48. That inhibits growth. Let’s bring down costs by deploying advanced renewable energy technology. Consider that Kodiak went to 99% renewable energy and has reduced their energy costs since the year 2000, in sharp contrast to places like Anchorage that have continued to see costs climb. The Alaska Energy Authority has a prioritized, geographically balanced list of projects from wind to biomass that would save energy and strengthen our economy. Let’s invest and reap the benefits of cheaper, cleaner energy.
You might think that physical infrastructure has a higher return on investment than a functioning child care system. Or others might make a case that early care and learning has a higher return than postsecondary education. Let’s have those debates — because whatever the allocation of resources we decide, these are opportunities for growth and not mere redistribution of wealth. It seems that the Governor will continue pandering about unaffordable mega-dividends, and his posturing is beyond our control. What we can do, however, is work together on policies and investments that could generate jobs and economic growth.
Zack Fields represents downtown Anchorage in the Alaska House of Representatives and co-chairs the House Labor and Commerce Committee.