- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

By The Associated Press (AP) - Here is a sampling of editorial opinions from Alaska newspapers:

Feb. 11, 2016

Juneau Empire: House puts state’s money where its mouth is

The Alaska House of Representatives obviously gets it. We’re hoping the Alaska Senate will, too.

The House on Monday voted 38-1 in support of a resolution to stop work on any bills not directly related to bridging the state’s nearly $4 billion budget gap. All lawmakers knew coming into the legislative session that addressing the budget and finding revenue solutions would be the top priority, but the House essentially put the state’s money (or lack thereof) where its mouth is. Until the House sends its version of the budget to the Senate for approval, there will be no work on other topics, with only a few exceptions.

We applaud the House for getting its priorities right. The budget should be priorities one, two and three.

This isn’t to say the other bills aren’t important, but without funding state government will not be able to afford anything beyond the most basic level of services. They can get to those bills, but should only do so after addressing the budget.

The state cannot afford to delay solving this issue any further without severe financial consequences next year. Even delaying until next session will be too late, and the state’s Capital Budget Reserve won’t have enough money left to make a large impact if it’s raided this year to make ends meet.

The resolution also was a strong sign of bipartisan cooperation, with only Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, voting against. But Josephson’s concerns were about the House suspending its five day’s notice of when bills can be heard and instead going with a 24-hour rule.

“This is very important to focusing our work,” said Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau. “I really appreciate being able to get all of us … to solve our budget issues.”

Speaking from the other side of the aisle, Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, agreed. “I’m cautiously optimistic that there is an effort to work together in good faith and that we will continue to work together with our colleagues … for a sustainable budget plan.”

The House’s resolution is a sign of optimism that both parties are willing to set aside everything else and focus on the most important issue to face Alaska in decades. It’s our hope now that this gesture of bipartisanship will lead to solutions before time runs out.

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Feb. 14, 2016

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Lawmakers right to focus on fiscal matters, but tough choices ahead

The Alaska House of Representatives made a big decision last week by clearing the decks of all non-budget-related legislation, opting to only consider fiscal items until the body passes an operating budget for the state. It’s an unprecedented step, especially so early in the legislative session, but one warranted by the massive $4 billion budget hole facing the Legislature and Gov. Bill Walker. Opting to work solely on the budget could be a fruitful step toward a fiscal solution for the state - if legislators work together and make the tough choices necessary.

The plan to focus solely on the budget was that of Rep. Bryce Edgmon, a Democrat from Dillingham who caucuses with the Republican-led majority. Most of those who spoke about it before the measure passed the House by a 38-1 vote mentioned that fixing the state’s broken budget is the primary expectation Alaskans have of the Legislature this session.

Legislators are correct to think the public’s chief concern is the budget, and there’s reason to believe state lawmakers are earnest in their decision to focus on fiscal issues. But that doesn’t change the fact that among members of the public and the Legislature alike, there are great differences in people’s opinions on what should be done to fix Alaska’s budget mess. Some Alaskans, and possibly even some legislators, still cling to the hope that it’s possible to achieve a more or less balanced budget through cuts alone. Unfortunately, this is impossible.

Others want to see all possible cutting done before any revenue measures are advanced, a position that would be easier to swallow if the legislators in this position could specify how much cutting they believe is possible or necessary (so far, none have made even general statements about their desired level of cuts or their targets). And others want to see all manner of revenue mechanisms - plans that would turn the Alaska Permanent Fund into an endowment, the return of the state income tax, sales tax, removal of oil tax credits, hikes on petroleum production taxes, higher sin taxes, a state lottery and other measures.

Ultimately, it will take some blend of all these approaches to fix the state’s fiscal situation. But so far, few - especially in the House - have been keen to put their necks out and propose a meaningful, targeted set of cuts or specify a package of revenue measures that would return the ship of state to an even keel. If legislators remain as bashful about proposing fiscal solutions when focusing solely on the budget as they have been up to this point, the only real effect Rep. Edgmon’s measure will have had is to halt the work being done on non-budget-related items.

Also a potential concern is the definition of what qualifies a bill as directly related to the budget or new revenue. It seems a simple thing, but the Legislature has had issues in past years with majority caucus leadership flexing its muscle, especially during focused special sessions, refusing to consider minority bills that they declare outside the scope of the session. The ability to define terms is powerful; the majority shouldn’t use it as a cudgel.

But there’s hope both the majority and minority are earnest in their desire to work with one another on the budget and do what’s right for the state. There has even been some discussion of a Caucus of the Whole, which would put all members on equal footing in discussing where to go from here. Given that last year, the schism between the majority and minority caucuses in the house stalled progress on the budget and other items, forcing two special sessions, anything that would help bridge that divide and keep members talking to one another has to be viewed as a positive.

The decision by the House to focus solely on fiscal matters until the state operating budget is taken care of was a good one, but that decision on its own is no guarantee the state’s fiscal issues will be solved faster or at all. What’s required now is that legislators step forward and take the political risk of putting forth potential solutions for their colleagues and the public to debate.

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