- Associated Press - Monday, February 8, 2016

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

Feb. 7, 2016

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Borough should set pot tax

Slowly but surely, municipalities across the Interior are firming up local policy on marijuana regulation. Delta Junction, the most recent community to vote on the issue, became the first Interior community on the road system to exercise the local option to disallow growing or retail sale of the drug. The cities of Fairbanks and North Pole have opted to allow both cultivation and sale of pot and have adopted sales taxes of 5 percent and 6 percent, respectively, that should pay for any incidental expenses related to the drug’s impact on city business. The Fairbanks North Star Borough, for its part, has been proactive in zoning and regulation of potential marijuana businesses.

There’s just one major item left to be settled in the Fairbanks area: Does the borough plan to levy its own pot tax? If so, it should do so as soon as possible so rules are in place before businesses are up and running.

Though no borough marijuana tax has yet been passed, that hasn’t been for lack of trying. The Borough Assembly hurried to get a tax ordinance ready at the end of summer in 2015, as new borough taxes must be approved by local voters and the assembly was pressing up against the deadline to add an item to the October municipal ballot. Plans to vote on the tax in the fall were thwarted, however, when the assembly’s members split on whether to levy a 5 percent tax - the same as the municipality’s tax on alcohol - or 8 percent, the same as its tax on tobacco. Ultimately, both proposals failed and there wasn’t time to put the matter to voters.

The failure of the tax vote led to an awkward situation for the borough, which is now left with no marijuana tax outside the city limits of Fairbanks and North Pole. That’s the opposite of the more prudent outcome, which would set the borough tax rate at least as high as that of the cities to avoid a glut of marijuana businesses moving into outlying areas to avoid tax liability.

With that in mind, the borough has two options: to move a tax proposal for inclusion on the fall ballot or to hold a special election on the marijuana tax issue alone.

Assembly members might be tempted to let the matter lie until the October election to avoid the cost of a special election - recent ones have cost Alaska municipalities between $30,000 and $60,000. But the tax gathered between the advent of legal commercial marijuana sales and the time when it could be collected if the body waited for a regular election might well pay for the cost of administering the special election. What’s more, setting the rate of local taxes for marijuana businesses in the spring (special elections can take place 75 days after a Borough Assembly vote to hold them) rather than in October would provide fiscal certainty for local firms applying for licenses, which will begin being issued in early summer.

Those looking to determine a location for their businesses should know what they’re getting into with regard to tax rates, and if the borough waits until October to put the matter to voters, they could have a tax of a yet-unknown rate sprung on them after setting up shop and opening their doors. Whether the borough decides to charge 5 percent, 8 percent or some other rate, businesses would be far better served knowing what that number will be before they start taking customers.

The cost and inconvenience of a special election can’t be denied, but local residents and prospective businesses would be ill-served by waiting on a tax decision. The borough should hold a special election to decide the issue of local marijuana taxes outside the city limits.

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Feb. 5, 2016

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: District should rethink nurse cuts

As state legislators ponder another round of cuts to the state budgets, local recipients of state funds are doing what they can to prepare. The University of Alaska has rolled out a plan to pursue consolidation of programs by campus and municipalities are gaming out worst-case scenarios for revenue sharing from the state. The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District is doing what it can to make cuts of its own while trying to avoid effects in the classroom. One aspect of the district’s plan is to make a substantial cut to nursing staff in schools, reducing the number of nurses by about 80 percent. While well-intentioned, the move appears to have a considerable number of potential negatives - so much so that it’s hard to believe the estimated cost savings will materialize or be worthwhile.

At present, the district has 28 nurses, which amounts to one for each K-12 school in the system. The proposal being considered would trim that number to five “roving” nurses who would serve the district at large, replacing the lost nurses with school health assistants who have varying levels of training and certification. In doing so, Superintendent Karen Gaborik estimates the district could save $300,000 per year.

With budget pressure mounting throughout the education system, a $300,000 savings is nothing to sneeze at. But it’s also important to do a cost-benefit analysis of any such action. There’s a lengthy list of questions and potential negatives in eliminating so much of the district’s on-hand medical capacity: What kinds of medical emergencies would schools no longer be able to handle without a nurse on staff? Will students with medical needs and conditions requiring regular medication or treatment be able to be served by medical assistants, or will their parents need to seek alternatives to public schooling? Will the district be opening itself to liability because of its reduced ability to provide for students’ medical needs while children are in school custody? As the district has recently learned in dealing with liability related to other matters, a single such lawsuit could easily wipe out all of the potential savings.

What’s more, $300,000 - though a meaningful savings - doesn’t seem like much when compared to the number of positions and expertise being lost. With 23 nurse positions being cut, the savings work out to about $13,000 per lost position. While that number makes sense when considering that the gap between the wage of a school health assistant and a nurse is only a fraction of the position’s total cost, it’s only equivalent to the savings of cutting a handful of positions outright. While outright cuts aren’t a happy prospect either, they have the economic virtue of providing far more cost savings per position cut than the district’s proposed plan, which would appear to significantly diminish all local schools’ ability to deal with medical needs.

School budgeting, especially under increasing pressure from the state to keep costs down, is no easy task. But the district should take a hard second look at its proposal to cut most local school nurses. It may find the negatives outweigh the savings.

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