Cole Sonafrank's

Guest Opinion published in April of 1997

"Crash diets won't work for Alaska either"

Our interior Representative, Gene Therriault, argued on the record that this legislature has no obligation to fund the second year of the three-year State employment contracts entered into by our last legislature. He says the fact that one legislature can't be bound by a prior one is basic civics. That's true. It's also largely irrelevant. Just because you can do something doesn't make it a good idea. This legislature's radical cuts are not in Alaskans' best interest.

Basic business sense says that breaking contracts is risky and usually a bad idea. Contract negotiations are based on trust and the lack thereof. Flexing their muscles, our representatives are breaking Alaska's word. If we silently let them "save" money this way, employees and other businesses bargaining with the State will rationally decrease their trust of the State of Alaska and demand more in the first year of their next contracts. Costs will go up, not down. Even if you don't like the terms of a contract accepted by your predecessor, it's bad business to under value your institution's trustworthiness. This isn't a question of individual ethics or of legislative prerogative. The question is simply: Are the benefits of wiggling out of these contracts worth the costs? Alaska and this legislature has the $7.6 million needed to honor these contracts. It's less than one day's Permanent Fund interest earnings. Only the excuses are poor.

The Constitutional Budget Reserve alone is presently valued at over $3.2 billion. Each legislature has flexibility, crafting its budget with an expected impact on that account. Some majority legislators have prudently begun discussing how best to use the CBR's interest income. One bill, for example suggests funding the maintenance of public facilities like schools, lessening the burden on the General Fund. Fine fiscal forethought!

As with most of this legislature's budget cutting proposals, their plan to under-fund the employee contracts appears to save money only in the world of sound bites. In real-world dollars and sense, as in common sense, it's more likely to be expensive. It's just one small example of cuts that defy rational judgment. They are especially costly to folks in communities who pay property taxes as everyone in the Fairbanks North Star Borough does, directly or indirectly. In the last five years our local contribution to education has increased by $5 million. Our representatives' failure to fund State property tax exemptions for mandated senior citizens and disabled veterans cost us another $9 million.

Fairbanks' Representative Pete Kelly recently explained to a delegation of FNSB Assemblymembers that in general it's a good idea for government services to be paid for at the local level. I'm certain that oil industry lobbyists would agree, especially now that local governments such as ours are pushing to halt the decline in taxes collected for the oil pipeline. This from an industry whose slogans include "no decline in '99." If the pipeline's still so useful, why should its assessed value continue depreciating? It's gone down 56% in the last 10 years! Wouldn't you like to be able to do that with your house? That State-negotiated under-valuation has cost our Borough alone almost $2 million in the last five years.

Our representatives down in Juneau are insulated from us and the cold truth back home by a thick layer of lobbyists. As Alaskans, we all know it's dangerous to ignore the cold. Sometimes we need to feel it and be reminded just how real and serious it is. Now is such a time for our elected representatives. They need for each and every one of us to take just a few minutes and call the Legislative Information Office at 452-4448. Express your opinion, whatever it is. Exercise your civic duty before it atrophies away altogether. Otherwise, through the rhetoric of cost cutting and sound bite savings, our community will continue to pay more for basic public services such as education, safety, road maintenance, and garbage disposal.

Have we in Alaska come to take our democracy so for granted that we've forgotten having a lean and efficient government is a good thing? Slimming it down is healthy. We've done that. This legislature would leave it bony and bleeding. We must always struggle to keep fat from the public belly, but we must recognize that crash diets and simple pills are counter productive. Exercising your democratic body is much easier than working out your physical one. It's exercise you can do not only for yourself, but for your children. You are setting them a good example while helping to build opportunities for their prosperity. They may not realize it yet, but they're depending on you. All you have to do is care and talk. Talk to your friends and talk to your representatives. We can't hear silence.

Fairbanks North Star Borough Assemblymember Cole Sonafrank is the Assembly's representative on the Alaska Municipal League's Revenue and Finance Legislative Committee. He supervises the Geophysical Institute's Computer Resource Center.

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