Here is a sampling of editorial opinions from Alaska newspapers:
Dec. 15, 2013
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: State's budget situation isn't dire, but only because of recent savings
With surprising suddenness, it's back to the future for the state budget. After a decade of relative affluence, we've returned to fiscal conditions that resemble those of about a decade ago.
Fortunately, there is one significant difference. This time around, we have a lot of money stashed in accessible bank accounts.
Those savings explain how Gov. Sean Parnell on Thursday could propose a fiscal year 2014 budget that exceeds expected income by more than $1 billion while also asserting that "we are not in dire straits."
Nevertheless, those savings won't last long. So it's worth looking at the debate that occurred the last time the state faced a billion-dollar budget hole, because the same debates are coming to a Legislature near you. It might be a few years before the discussions get serious, but they're coming if oil prices don't save us again.
In 2002, the state's fiscal situation got so bad that the House approved both an income tax and the use of investment earnings from the Alaska Permanent Fund.
t was a bipartisan solution. Rep. John Davies, D-Fairbanks, designed the income tax and House Speaker Brian Porter, R-Anchorage, endorsed it. Without that income tax, Porter said at the time, the Legislature soon would have to make up budget shortfalls with permanent fund earnings alone, which would have ended the dividend program. Then-Gov. Tony Knowles endorsed the plan. However, the Senate declined to pass the measures, so neither option was adopted.
Frank Murkowski won the governorship later that year with a campaign that skirted the immediate tough budget questions and focused on the long-term potential of resource development; when he got to Juneau, he had to make a number of unexpected budget cuts, including the elimination of the longevity bonus for seniors. With an administrative pen stroke in early 2005, he also increased oil revenues by consolidating small fields into Prudhoe Bay for taxation purposes. In 2006, he and the Legislature agreed on new higher oil taxes, the petroleum profits tax.
In the wake of the Veco corruption scandal, the Legislature revisited the oil taxes the next year and increased them dramatically through Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share, pushed by then-Gov. Sarah Palin. When oil prices spiked in 2008, the state received a huge windfall and socked away billions.
Now we're about to start spending those billions, and quickly. Oil production has fallen so far that, even with per barrel prices above $100, tax revenues are meager.
The low revenue isn't directly caused by the oil tax cut approved earlier this year in the More Alaska Production Act, pushed by Parnell and approved by the Legislature in hopes of reversing the production decline. Rather, state revenues are declining because production continues to drop, prices aren't as high as predicted and oil companies are spending a lot of money on the North Slope. The state's oil tax system, to encourage investment, allows that spending to be deducted. The revenues would have dropped under ACES as well, because it also allowed those deductions.
There's argument about whether the oil companies would have been spending and deducting so much had MAPA not passed; it seems too soon to declare anything on that score yet.
In any case, there's no denying that the state's budget situation is worrisome. Welcome to the state of Alaska, circa 2002. The one bright spot is that legislators and governors actually saved some money in the intervening years. We're going to need it.
Dec. 13, 2013
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: The problem is inadequate funding to cover bureaucratic requirements
The community meeting about mental health services Wednesday evening was both encouraging and discouraging.
More than 100 people showed up to talk about finding solutions to the chronic lack of services for people with mental health problems in Fairbanks. That was the encouraging part.
The discouraging part was the common diagnosis of the problem: Not enough funding is available from public agency sources to compensate for the bureaucracy involved in treating people under their rules.
Mental health counselors said they won't take clients whose bills would be paid by Medicaid and Medicare, because doing so brings on too much paperwork.
Some types of paperwork can be handled by hiring more administrative staff. If the reimbursement rate is high enough, it will cover the cost of the staff members. However, rates appear to be inadequate to cover the bureaucracy.
In addition, it's not just administrative staff that are needed. The actual care providers apparently also have a lot of paperwork, and their time is more limited and expensive.
"It's just a burden I won't put on my clinicians," said Gunnar Ebbesson, clinical director for Turning Point Counseling Services. So the company doesn't accept clients who pay with Medicaid and Medicare.
The financial issues also were at the root of the Fairbanks Community Behavioral Health Center's collapse a few months ago. While that institution has been resurrected partially as the Fairbanks Community Mental Health Services, the new management is focused on staying in the black, as it should.
Asking for higher reimbursement rates from Medicaid and Medicare is not likely to be a popular idea in the face of state and federal deficit spending. The more realistic path might be for caregivers and agencies to identify procedural and reporting changes that reduce the expense of seeing a patient.
It's good to see all the focus on the issue. Now it's time for some solutions.
Dec. 12, 2013
Anchorage Daily News: Either rewrite House Bill 77 or kill it
House Bill 77
Without a major overhaul, deep-six this measure
Sen. Peter Micciche has taken the time to do what the Parnell administration would not be doing if House Bill 77 became law -- listen to Alaskans on natural resource permitting.
The Soldotna Republican has opposed the bill as passed by the state House of Representatives because it invests far too much power in the commissioner of natural resources to allow developers a free hand on state lands without public notice or knowledge, and kill too many protections of state resources.
During forums in Soldotna and Homer this week, Micciche heard strong voices reinforcing his own opposition to the bill, even with administration members explaining and defending it.
On the Kenai Peninsula, the main issue is protection of salmon habitat. Neither sport nor commercial fishermen will warm to the idea that not only might they have little say in the future of that habitat, but they might not even know if there's a threat to it.
Such a law leaves far too much to the discretion of one individual, and leaves Alaska citizens in the dark about what that individual decides. It takes Alaskans out of the process, leaving it to the administration and developers to agree, without public participation, how Alaska lands can be used.
This isn't streamlining. This is an invitation to abuse, and a legal means to first keep Alaskans in the dark, then sharply curtail their right to appeal decisions if and when they learn about them. This is not how a representative democracy works. Nor is this wise management of Alaska's natural resources.
A more efficient, fair permitting system serves everybody. But that permitting system should operate in the open where Alaskans can see what's proposed and what's at risk -- and have a say in the decision-making process.
As Sen. Micciche said, he ran for office backing speedier, streamlined permitting for development projects. He's no obstructionist. But as he also said, he did not run for office with the intent of cutting his constituents out of natural resources decisions that affect their lives and livelihoods.
That's what House Bill 77 does. This is bad law that guts the democratic process.
Take redundancy and waste out of the permitting process? That's good government. Take Alaskans out of the permitting process? That's special-interest government. Unless there's a major overhaul, HB 77 should never see the Senate floor. Just the shredder.