- Associated Press - Monday, December 22, 2014

Here is a sampling of editorial opinions from Alaska newspapers:

Dec. 21, 2014

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Walker’s cautious budget forecast for 2015 could serve Alaska well

At a meeting of the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce on Dec. 16, Gov. Bill Walker gave Interior residents an in-depth look at his thinking on the state’s financial situation. In an address that turned into a candid question-and-answer session, the governor spoke to a number of state and local issues weighing on the minds of Fairbanksans and his own administration. Make no mistake, the picture that emerged was financially bleak, at least in the short term. But in a time of coming fiscal austerity, it’s probably best to prepare for the worst and wind up being able to add funds back if the financial picture brightens than be overoptimistic and have to make painful cuts in the jam-packed final days of the legislative session.

Gov. Walker says he isn’t expecting the price of oil to recover significantly in the coming year. It’s been a rough year for Alaska’s primary economic driver, which has fallen by more than 40 percent this year, tumbling from nearly $110 per barrel in January to the low $60 per barrel range last week. What’s more, former Gov. Sean Parnell’s signature oil tax reforms haven’t led to significant increases in new production - though to be fair, the amount of increased production it would take to reduce the state’s financial bind at current price levels is completely unrealistic

The governor is right to be cautious. It’s better to game out the scenario in which $60 per barrel oil is the norm for the coming year than to hope prices will rebound on little to no evidence that will be the case.

Still, a budget based on oil in the $60-per-barrel range will mean there’s plenty of pain to go around. We saw a taste of that this week in Gov. Walker’s draft capital budget, which saw massive cuts to infrastructure projects like the Ambler road, the Susitna dam and the Knik Arm bridge. The budget cuts weren’t restricted to megaprojects - locally popular programs like weatherization and energy rebate funds were also zeroed out, and state services like education saw their capital budgets completely eliminated or reduced to only projects with federal matching funds.

As Gov. Walker said in a press release announcing the draft budget, the document is just the start of a conversation about what we as a state can afford, and he looks forward to hearing from both residents and legislators about priorities as the budgeting process continues. But the governor’s budget as released is certainly a meaningful marker to get that conversation started.

As he has cut funds for nearly all of the megaprojects favored by the different regions of the state, Gov. Walker can hardly be accused of playing favorites. That said, a careful look about which of those projects most benefit the state and its residents is warranted, if funds should be found through prudent budgeting or rebounding oil prices. Some, like the Ambler road, would primarily provide benefit in the form of jobs due to the state’s absence of production taxes on mining. Others, like the Susitna-Watana dam, would have greater impact to more of the state’s residents, potentially providing a significant reduction in power costs to the Railbelt, where more than half of Alaska’s population resides. Should revenue be found for such a purpose, the governor and legislators should bear such benefits in mind when deciding which projects to fund.

By current indications, the coming year will be a difficult one for the state and its government. But Alaska is too rich a state in resources and people to roll over and admit defeat. By reducing costs and planning well for the state’s future, Gov. Walker and the Legislature can chart a course that will keep our state on track and lessen the negative impact of a reduced budget on Alaskans. It won’t be easy - but things that are worth doing rarely are.

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Dec. 20, 2014

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: The university will need strong leadership and support from the state

The announcement earlier this month that University of Alaska President Pat Gamble will retire in June comes at a challenging time for the university system.

No one can begrudge President Gamble his decision, of course. He will have served the University of Alaska five years at the time of his departure. That service follows his full life of public service, including nine years as president and CEO of the Alaska Railroad and a distinguished Air Force career from which he retired as four-star general and commander of all U.S. air forces in the Pacific region.

One of the principal achievements of his tenure atop the UA system is the Shaping Alaska’s Future initiative, which began in October 2011. University officials held more than 80 listening sessions with Alaskans with students, faculty, staff, alums, elected officials and others to produce a document that aims to ensure the institution “is serving the learning, research, economic, social and cultural needs of Alaska and Alaskans.”

The effort, now completed, was important for the university. (The final report can be found online at www.alaska.edu/shapingalaskasfuture.)

However, producing - and sustaining - a university that serves Alaskans well requires a commitment not only from the leader of that university but also from Alaskans and their leaders in the state capital.

That’s the challenge confronting the university system now. The budget news out of Juneau, where the new governor and his staff are preparing for the January state of the next session of the Legislature, is grim.

The price of oil has fallen precipitously this year, from $104.98 on Jan. 2 to $58.42 on Wednesday, the latest date listed on the Alaska Department of Revenue website. Oil revenue accounts for about 88 percent of the state’s general fund revenue, so it should come as no surprise that Gov. Bill Walker is sounding pessimistic yet realistic about the state’s financial situation: “You can’t bring down the revenue by 40 percent and act like it didn’t happen,” the governor said at a Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce gathering earlier this week.

But the governor and legislators must be careful with regard to any budget cutting directed at the university system. While it is unreasonable to argue that the university should be immune to the state’s fiscal ailment, it would be folly to approve budget reductions that substantially weaken what has become a strong and well-regarded institution.

The next University of Alaska president will need to be someone who can forcefully make the case for adequately providing for the university. Leading a university isn’t a simple task, but it is a little easier to do in times of plentiful resources.

This is not such a time. And there’s no telling when it will change for the better.

Facing an uncertain fiscal future isn’t something new for the University of Alaska. It was back in January 1998 that then-UA President Jerome Komisar, in a news release announcing his retirement after eight years on the job, referenced declining state funding.

“Diminishing state resources has been the great disappointment of the last several years,” President Komisar said at the time. “You cannot build the university the people of Alaska want and deserve without a greater commitment of state resources.

“The university’s strength lies in its exceptionally skilled, learned and energetic faculty, staff and student body,” he said. “The challenge of the next decade will be to provide the multiple resources necessary for them to do their best work.”

And that remains the challenge today - for the university, for its next president, for Gov. Walker and for the 60 members of the Alaska Legislature.

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