Letters from the Editor: Shifting deckchairs on the sinking ‘Ship of State’

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Illustration by Mason Schoemaker / Sun Star

Spencer Tordoff / Web Editor

Let me start by being perfectly blunt: our school and our state are both in deep trouble. Despite this, much of our leadership can’t seem to get their heads out of their collective asses.

Politics in Alaska have long been a parade of the absurd. Our previous three governors were a man who bought himself a jet, a nationally-known trainwreck, and a literal oil company lawyer, respectively. Our legislature has never been much better, with some of our state and national lawmakers choosing to name themselves the “Corrupt Bastards Club.”

Embarrassing behavior has been a mainstay of Alaska’s political system for the last 30 years at least—but, as the operations of government were funded by oil tax revenue, the average citizen didn’t have much cause to care. As long as your PFD check doesn’t bounce everything must be fine, right?

But times are changing. The price of oil has hit the floor and shows no signs of getting up, and many Alaskan voices are saying that the days of carefree energy revenue are over. The state faces a deficit of about $3.6 billion—that’s right, with a ‘b’—and unless the state brings in more revenue, cuts services deeply, or (most likely) both, that deficit is projected to widen next fiscal year. This shortfall trickles down to the University of Alaska system as well, which faces at least a $65 million cut compared to last year.

While I typically favor a broad social safety net and a focus on public services, I am a pragmatist first and foremost. Like it or not, the practical approach to our state’s impending armageddon involves giving serious consideration to every source of revenue and every potential cut, with nothing off limits. The budget should be taken care of to the exclusion of every other topic, with other legislation handled if time permits.

Our state legislature disagrees, finding it much more relevant to spend the taxpayer dime on trips around the world, or studies rationalizing their shiny new Anchorage clubhouse. The Alaska House of Representatives, to their credit, has agreed to address the budget first. The Senate, meanwhile, has become a legion of Neros, fiddling pointlessly as the halls of government burn to the ground—and collecting extra pay as they force their session into overtime.

The lead fiddler is easily Pete Kelly, who has been wasting time and money trying to push his pet agenda, attempting to allow concealed carry of firearms on UA campuses. Whether or not you agree with the issue at hand, the timing is inarguably laughable. It fails to address the state and UA budgets, while attempting to twist the arms of university leadership. The reappearance of this bill shows that Kelly has little tact at best and no regard for our state’s future at worst.

(This is by no means the only pointless, time-wasting bill in the Senate. Another would prevent Planned Parenthood from teaching sex education classes in the state, which is at once frivolous AND potentially harmful.)

Although UAF leadership doesn’t have direct control over budgets or funding, they haven’t been doing much to curb student fears either. While it’s believable that the Faculty Senate was genuinely striving for inclusiveness when they resolved to find a new word for first-year students, the timing definitely gives the impression that they are concerned with minutiae in the midst of an oncoming storm.

Although it predates the crisis, the “Tobacco-Free Campus” initiative seems similarly misguided, as UAF spends money to replace ashtrays with impotent signage, leaving our still-threatened campus littered with cigarette butts.

There is a need to give credit where it’s due. Though Governor Bill Walker will be remembered for the budget collapse, he inherited it from his predecessor and has stated without hesitation that addressing the shortfall is his number one priority.

UA President Jim Johnsen is in a similar boat, and while the Strategic Pathways Initiative is unpopular and potentially dangerous to the UA system, it is at least a genuine attempt to address our budgetary issues—issues which previous President Pat Gamble decided to flee rather than fix.

I’ll even throw state Representative Tammy Wilson a bone for her proposed slashing of the UA budget. Her proposal seeks to address the state’s fiscal solvency, but like most of her ideas it’s brutish, poorly-conceived, and deeply out of touch with the needs of Alaskans now and in the future. (And, for the record, her desire to force UA students to repay state grants and scholarships is even stupider than most of her ideas.)

Given our history, I see no reason to believe this issue will be resolved after this session. The legislature will scrape together a temporary agreement, tap accounts where necessary, and put off making harder choices (like enacting taxes, or using a portion of the Permanent Fund) to next year.

Here in Alaska, shifting deckchairs is a time-honored tradition and although the listing “Ship of State” has us all up to our ankles in seawater, our leadership seems quite content to hem and haw over seating arrangements.

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