The Politics of Crisis Management

Medium Grind – Opinion

The political spectrum isn’t always a straight line with the moderates standing with outstretched arms, preventing the far left and right from thrashing one another. Some issues or circumstances have sufficient gravity to bend the spectrum into a loop, bringing the extremes together in unexpected alliances, and leaving the moderates struggling to straighten things back out. In some ways the current fiscal challenge facing Alaska has done just that. The vacuum created by a $3.6 billion revenue shortfall has, in some cases, driven liberals and conservatives to reach the same conclusions, albeit by different routes.

One such awkward alliance was on display in Senate State Affairs on Jan. 28 when Anchorage Democrat Bill Wielechowski and Eagle River Republican Bill Stoltze took turns, along with other committee members, delivering rabbit punches to Revenue Commissioner Randy Hoffbeck’s presentation on the governor’s sovereign wealth fund proposal. In many ways the committee was a microcosm of the political realities inside the Legislature.

Before Hoffbeck could get through his first slide, each committee member with the exception of North Pole’s Sen. John Coghill, contributed to a rhetorical gauntlet for Hoffbeck and co-presenter Attorney General Craig Richards to navigate.

Stoltze opened the salvo by pointing out that his read of the governor’s proposal finds it focused mostly on revenues, and that Governor Bill Walker’s budget cuts may actually be little more than a wash. He later pointed out that his constituents, based on conversations he had at a Mat-Su gun show, did not necessarily agree with the positions held by what he described as hand-picked focus groups at the University of Alaska that met with Walker’s team.

Anchorage Republican Lesil McGuire made a pitch for her own revenue plan, SB 114 (see Grinder News: Go With the Flow on Jan. 20). She asked Hoffbeck if Walker’s plan is to raise revenues to equal the current size of government, and said her answer when discussing her own Permanent Fund plan is, no. Instead, she said, her plan is meant to be a glide path to stabilize the government and the economy and provide time for the Legislature and the public to determine the right size for Alaska government.

Wasilla Republican Charlie Huggins said his constituents are telling him, “Charlie Huggins, you cut the budget before you take money out of my pocket.” Huggins said he believes that’s the sentiment from the average Alaskan, “particularly those that are paying attention.” He added that it’s his natural inclination to do that anyway and that it’s good to hear it reinforced by constituents. Huggins acknowledged that some others hold different opinions, but he described them as already having their gold watches, and essentially looking out for their own interests.

Then Anchorage Democrat Bill Wielechowski agreed that cuts are still needed. Wielechowski said he’d also heard from constituents and his neighbors want to know where all the new production he says was promised with the passage of Gov. Sean Parnell’s SB 21. He waved a Department of Revenue slide at Hoffbeck and said, “This was a slide that you presented just last week in the Finance Committees. We were told the drop in oil production was stopped. We were told we were going to get more oil production, and instead what we’re seeing is a decline going down below 300,000 barrels [per day] in the next ten years, which has a dramatic impact on our revenues.”

In fairness to Hoffbeck, he wasn’t part of the Parnell team. He was appointed by the man who defeated Parnell, and an administration that has made no production promises.

Stoltze concluded the opening remarks by saying, “I think we’ve all staked out our rhetorical ground.” They had, and despite their differing paths, they’d essentially arrived on the same side of the thicket, bayonets drawn to press the governor back from a herd sacred cows. Thus are strange bedfellows made by political gravity.

What Is Representation?

As mentioned above, legislators like to reference their constituents, and anecdotally it seems each legislator represents a homogenous district that reflects his or her own biases and philosophical leanings. Huggins said the people he hears from confirm his own preference to cut first and raise revenue later. Wielechowski, who has railed against SB 21 from the start, says his constituents all want to know where the promised production is. Congressman Don Young once infamously said he represents all the people who voted for him. It’s an impolitic thing to say, but it begs an important question. Is an elected official beholden to legislate based upon the majority opinion in his or her district, or is there more to the job?

In the case of Alaska’s budget crisis there is a general consensus among legislators that they can’t simply spend through the state’s savings and hope for oil to arise again from the grave to save the state. Most legislators also appear to agree that budget cuts alone won’t get the job done, and some kind of revenue generation is in order. The glue that binds the two ends of the political spectrum together is political in nature, and it mostly consists of the public’s vague opinion that government is too big, and that cuts must happen before any talk of revenue can begin. It doesn’t matter whether or not that is true; an election is coming, and anyone who won’t cut government now will likely be cut from government in November.

In Grinder News’ Jan. 23 story, “Teal: The Color of Scary Math” the Legislative Finance director’s presentation made a good case that government operations have actually remained fairly constant for decades. Should legislators be striving to share that information with their constituents, even if it’s not what they want to hear? Is it enough to vote the general will of your district, or is there a responsibility to ensure your constituents have all the information first – even the inconvenient information that weakens your own case? It’s a question Alaskans can only answer for themselves.

Surely, most people are not going to volunteer to have a reduced dividend or to pay an income tax, and there is historical evidence that politicians have suffered the wrath of voters when they’ve mentioned such prospects. But in today’s fiscal reality you can only kick that can so far – about four years until the state’s savings run out and people’s PFDs disappear for good. Do the constituents at Bill Stoltze’s gun show or at Bill Wielechowski’s constituent meetings really know that or believe it? Would Alaskans urge their legislators to reduce education funding, roads maintenance, access to health care, law enforcement or fisheries management if they knew none of that will save their dividends or protect them from taxes in the not-so-long-haul? If they do know those things and they still don’t want to talk about revenues, that’s democracy and it’s great. If they don’t know those things it may be that their government is failing them when it counts most.

Readers and friends have suggested I may be long winded at times, so I'll end this post on that point and take up the rest of the topic in my next post. Please share your thoughts and opinions on this important topic.