- Associated Press - Monday, May 18, 2015

Here is a sampling of editorial opinions from Alaska newspapers:

May 17, 2015

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Legislature’s unwillingness to engage public symptom of partisanship

The Alaska Legislature has had some difficult problems to deal with this year - a huge budget deficit, marijuana legalization and Medicaid expansion and reform, to name a few. But one of the Legislature’s biggest problems is one that members of the group caused themselves: a widespread perception among the state’s residents that their elected representatives aren’t listening to the public.

It’s a theme that kept popping back up as the session rolled along, on a variety of different issues. After public comment closed on the state operating budget, Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, and Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, moved to reduce education formula funding by 4 percent, introducing an unexpected funding gap of about $47.5 million in state funds to districts across Alaska. The formula funding decrease had not been previously debated or presented as a likely option, and it took residents by surprise.

Even when there has been ample opportunity for the public to weigh in on a decision, it’s not clear the Legislature gave their opinion much weight. In more than a dozen hearings on Medicaid during this year’s session, public comment ran strongly in favor of expanding coverage by accepting federal funds for that purpose. A statewide poll on the issue released by the House majority in late March found Alaskans support Medicaid expansion by nearly a two-to-one ratio. Instead of listening to the people on the issue, legislators inserted language into the state operating budget that would ban Medicaid expansion.

More recently, legislators were openly skeptical of Gov. Bill Walker’s plans to include citizens in budget discussions this summer. “We kind of know what needs to be done,” said Sen. Kelly when state budget director told the Senate Finance Committee about the plan. Sens. Kelly and Dunleavy voiced concerns that more public comment would only lead to more grousing about cuts the Legislature made this session. “Every dollar has a constituency,” Sen. Kelly said.

Some legislators indicated a willingness to find out whether that was true. On Thursday, the Democrat-led minority caucus held an open public comment period after the House Finance Committee announced it would take no action on Medicaid during the special session. What rapidly became apparent was that many members of the public were interested in speaking out on issues such as the state budget, Medicaid and education - more than 100 people lined up to testify in Anchorage and Fairbanks. What was also clear was it wasn’t just people crying out for money. Many people did speak in support of more funding for education and Medicaid expansion, but others spoke in support of cuts the Legislature made and were hesitant about expanding Medicaid when issues with billing vendor Xerox have yet to be resolved. It was a broad spectrum of views that reflect the diversity of Alaskans’ political opinions. To be fair, there is a public-relations motive in appearing to be more open to listening to the public, and anyone who has been in politics long knows it. But there’s also a real value in not assuming you know what people want or need and asking them instead.

The culprit in legislators’ skepticism to engage the public on matters of great import seems to be partisanship. The majority caucus’ refusal to seriously consider the revenue side of the state’s budget picture defies mathematics, and legislators’ talking points on Medicaid expansion mirrored the gulf between parties that has poisoned dialogue in Washington, D.C. It took a few years longer for the polarization to take place in Juneau than it did on the national stage, but moderates have been pushed out of meaningful roles in the Legislature. Ideologues and power brokers rule the stage.

As matters stand, Alaska is heading for a government shutdown, and caucus leadership appears willing to let that happen over the objection of the state’s people.

If one were to ask the state’s residents, they would likely be disgusted by the legislative gridlock. They might even be able to suggest a compromise that would keep the state working. But for that to happen, someone would have to listen.

___

May 13, 2015

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Population decline not portent of disaster, but state needs to pay attention and act

The decrease in Alaska’s population last year was small, relatively speaking. The net decline of 61 residents from July 2013 to July 2014 amounts to statistical noise, a hundredth of a percent of the state’s population. What makes the tiny drop meaningful is that it spells the end of more than a quarter century of uninterrupted growth. That’s something to which the state and its people should pay attention.

The reasons for the net loss of a few dozen Alaskans are relatively easy to pinpoint. Since the late 1980s, Alaska’s oil production on the North Slope has been declining. The trans-Alaska oil pipeline now transports a fraction of the crude that flowed through it during the state’s oil boom. While oil-related job counts have stayed relatively high, cracks have started to show in the state’s dominant industry over the course of the past year as refiners and producers have announced significant workforce cuts. The impact of the Alaska oil industry’s gradual decline has been compounded by the precipitous drop in oil prices in late 2014 and early 2015, leading to a massive budget deficit for the state and cuts to public sector jobs and spending.

At the same time, the U.S. economy has recovered substantially from the recession of the late 2000s, to the point that the national unemployment rate dipped below Alaska’s in early 2014 and has remained there since. People follow jobs, and the shale oil boom in the Lower 48 over the past several years siphoned not only much of oil and gas producers’ attention but also quite a few oilfield services employees and those in related trades.

The Interior also mirrored the state population decline. Locally, another factor adding stress to the equation of whether to stay in Alaska or venture elsewhere is the continued high cost of home heating. In cold winters and years with high costs for heating fuel, some residents’ fuel costs exceed their mortgage payments. The Legislature and former Gov. Sean Parnell acknowledged the issue and set funds aside for the Interior Energy Project, aiming to get lower-cost natural gas to Fairbanks and North Pole. But higher-than-expected cost projections for natural gas necessitated the refocusing of the project on a broader range of options, primarily Cook Inlet natural gas. That has led to continued uncertainty about when - and if - the Interior will finally get energy relief.

Not all the indicators for the state are trending in the wrong direction. Increased military commitments to Interior bases have become a trend over the course of the past year as the military shifts to a Pacific-facing strategic posture. That kind of commitment is heartening news for the Interior, where the military and the University of Alaska Fairbanks are major drivers of local jobs and economic activity. And it will go some distance toward stemming the loss of population as military members and their families arrive from other duty stations.

It’s also worth remembering there’s nothing written in stone saying Alaska’s population must grow continuously for the state to be healthy. As a matter of fact, there are many of us who think there are plenty of people here already. The issue: Population declines are usually a sign of poor economic health. Alaska last saw population decreases during the painful mid-1980s recession that saw the departure of thousands of state residents and many downtown Fairbanks businesses.

How should the state ensure this population decline isn’t a signal of a 1980s-caliber recession in the wings? The answer revolves around energy and jobs. Low-cost energy is needed for the Interior and rural communities where economic activity is hamstrung by the cost of fuel. Jobs are needed in areas of the economy that will help Alaska move away from its overwhelming dependence on oil as the state’s cash cow. That’s a tougher course to chart, since it’s hard to identify an industry that could provide the same level of revenue and jobs on a sustainable basis.

But it’s not impossible. Alaskans are a resilient and resourceful people, and can rise to meet the challenge facing them in the twilight of oil’s dominance. The Last Frontier’s future doesn’t hinge solely on its population count.

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