Legislators to Sacrifice Lounge Muffins for Common Good
Medium Grind -- Opinion
Alaska has always been a place of booms and busts. The Russian fur trade, the gold rush, World War II, and the Cold War brought in many more people to take advantage of each economic boom. When the reason for the boom waned or disappeared, many people left. But some stayed.
The discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay was more like an economic nuclear blast than a boom. The population of Alaska tripled. While the pipeline was being built, there was a card game behind every door, a hooker on every corner and a topless joint just down the street.
But even when those raucous days petered out, the state – and the city – continued to grow, enticed by hope and oil production. Mini-busts and mini-booms happened, but for many people life was like the hobo’s dream in the Big Rock Candy Mountains where “There's a lake of stew and ginger ale too\And you can paddle all around it in a big canoe…”
Ah, but as they say, what goes up must come down. In this case, three things are draining the ginger ale lake: Oil production continues to decline, our legislature and governor continue to give away around $2.5 billion dollars to various oil companies and the value of a barrel of oil is so low it looks like a submarine.
All of this means the state budget is $3.5 billion out of whack. Before we go to the sad responses to this, let's see what $3.5 billion is. First, it is 3,500 millions. Second, check your wallet. If you happen to have a $100 bill, it would be one of 35,000,000. More than you could carry in your hip pocket or purse. But for our purposes, it is half of the budget for next year. It is more than a budget gap, It is a budget canyon.
What is state lawmakers’ response to this, at least so far? The House has moved money this way and that, up and down the yearly calendars, and is even talking about cutting out an entrée in the legislative lounge. The Senate hasn't done anything yet except say that it’s budget will be smaller, and that the House should plan to say good-by to Portuguese sausage at breakfast as a cost saving measure. And, of course, all of this will change when each side picks three people to get together and hammer out the real budget.
Then they'll reach into some bag of money to pay the $3 billion deficit, and go off to get re-elected before the voters can figure out what’s going on.
Oh yeah, don't forget Gov. Bill Walker. He's got a plan. It's a package of cuts and increases in taxes that would need that same old $3 billion to balance the budget.
So the scorecard is this: Our boys – and girls – in Juneau won't take back about $2.5 billion that we are giving to the oil companies for no discernible benefit. Instead, they are talking about doing this, that and the other, all of which leaves them – surprise! – $3 billion short.
Of course, next year (that is to say after the election) they will discover that the earnings of the permanent fund will fill that gap nicely.
If you used to read my newspaper column long, long ago, you'll remember what a cheerful, Pollyanna-esque fellow I was. But all of this dodging and wheedling and smoke screening seems to be making me just a tiny bit cynical. How about you?