- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Here is a sampling of editorial opinions from Alaska newspapers:

Dec. 16, 2014

Ketchikan Dailey News: Committee posts

Alaska is well positioned in Congress after November’s election and the resulting assignments.

The election resulted in Republican control of Congress, with all three members of Alaska’s delegation in the majority.

Lisa Murkowski, who has been building seniority in the Senate, is joined by Senator-elect Dan Sullivan, while Congressman Don Young retains Alaska’s only House seat. Every one is a Republican.

Sen. Murkowski’s seniority will seat her on the Energy, Appropriations, Indian Affairs, and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees. Sullivan in his first term will be on Armed Services, Commerce, Environment and Public Works, and Veterans Affairs.

With Young’s assignments to Natural Resources, and Transportation and Infrastructure added in, Alaska is in a better position than it has been in at least half a dozen years; all congressional members are in their respective majorities and they have the committees covered.

The next congressional session will be better for Alaska.


Dec. 16, 2014

Juneau Empire: Defend the Coast Guard

The U.S. Coast Guard rescues Alaskans. Now, it’s the one that may need rescuing.

On Nov. 25, 2002, President George W. Bush signed the Homeland Security Act, creating the largest reorganization of the U.S. government since the creation of the Department of Defense. As part of the Homeland Security Act, authority over the U.S. Coast Guard was transferred from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland Security.

Twelve years on, we can safely say that this move has been a mistake.

In recent years, we’ve seen the Coast Guard’s budget slashed even as its duties increase. It must now patrol an entire additional ocean - the Arctic - and it must do so with fewer ships, fewer aircraft, fewer personnel and less support from other government agencies.

We have seen the Coast Guard’s ships suffer from deferred maintenance, and programs to replace the Coast Guard’s fleet have been repeatedly reduced to levels below what Coast Guard commanders have said they need.

Juneau is home to the headquarters of Coast Guard District 17, which means we have been granted a front-row seat to a tragedy. The men and women of the Coast Guard are as good as ever, but the support they receive - or in this case, are not receiving - is pitiful.

The number of “cutter days” in Alaska - the days a ship works at sea - has fallen, according to statistics provided by the Coast Guard to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. So has the number of flight hours for the Coast Guard aircraft assigned to fisheries patrols.

The Coast Guard desperately needs icebreakers for its Arctic and Antarctic missions, but seeking funding for new tools seems like a fool’s errand when the Coast Guard can’t even get the funding it needs to pay for its existing ones.

Something must change.

Congress seems intent to make immigration an issue in the coming year. Early this week, the U.S. Senate approved a House-created bill that funds government operations through September. The Department of Homeland Security wasn’t included in that timeline - it’s been funded only through February.

With a Republican-dominated House and Senate beginning work in 2015, Congress wants to make immigration a political issue. The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Border Patrol and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, will be its focus. That puts the Coast Guard in the crossfire.

Alaska’s interests are best served by a strong and stable Coast Guard. The Department of Homeland Security can’t provide that security.

Where, then, should the Coast Guard go? It belongs in the Department of Defense.

Under the Defense Department, the Coast Guard would be assured of stable funding and a reliable network of support. The Coast Guard already works closely with the U.S. Navy, and it makes sense in terms of efficiency to move the two organizations closer together.

Congress has been reluctant to cut funding for the U.S. military, even during the recent recession, and within the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard would be assured of financial stability - something long lacking.

We doubt Coast Guardsmen would be fans of any move to put their agency within the Department of the Navy, but efficiency and security should take no back seat to inter-service rivalries.

If the Department of the Navy is not a suitable home, the Coast Guard should be named a coequal service alongside the Army, Navy and Air Force. It already performs a job of equal importance, and it’s time that the Coast Guard received the credit it’s due.


Dec. 14, 2014

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Alaska needs budget leadership

Alaska’s political leaders once again will be reaching for the antacids as the state confronts a colossal loss of revenue because of the tumbling price of oil.

The Alaska Department of Revenue, in its annual fall forecast released last week, expects the price of oil to average $76 per barrel for the present fiscal year, which ends June 30. That’s down about 40 percent from the department’s spring projection. The department expects a further decline in the following fiscal year.

What this means is the state government is facing a $3.5 billion deficit for the current fiscal year, an increase of about $2 billion more than the deficit projection made in April.

So what to do, both for the present and for the future?

The suggestions will be many, and some of them may come tinged with panic. Alaska doesn’t need to panic, however, because of the reserve accounts that will help deal with the current shortfall. But those accounts have an ever-waning lifespan, meaning our state needs to take prompt and forward-thinking action now to avoid or minimize deficits in the coming years.

One such idea came to the fore 10 years ago, proposed by then-Gov. Frank Murkowski and endorsed eagerly by the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. board of directors.

The idea was known as the Percent of Market Value plan - the “POMV” in discussions. It would allow the Legislature to withdraw annually from the Alaska Permanent Fund an amount equivalent to a maximum of 5 percent of the fund’s total market value from the first five of the six preceding fiscal years.

The permanent fund would serve as an endowment, a time-tested and fiscally responsible device.

The POMV differs from existing practice in that all investment earnings would go into the fund’s principal, which is protected by the Alaska Constitution. Earnings presently go into a separate account from which the Legislature provides the annual dividend. Lawmakers also, though they are not required to, place some earnings into the principal.

Once withdrawn from the fund’s principal, half of the amount would go to the dividend and the other half to government operations, though this aspect of the plan would be left to the Legislature to decide each year.

A change to the POMV concept would require voter approval of a constitutional amendment. Amending the Constitution had the backing of the 55 members of the Conference of Alaskans, the group convened by Gov. Murkowski in 2004 to answer four questions relating to the budget crisis.

The POMV was pitched as a way for the state to avoid its continual budget deficits by providing a stable and source of funds for government, if needed.

It also was pitched as a way to reduce the year-to-year volatility in the dividend amount by basing the calculation on total fund value rather than on realized earnings.

The issue of continual budget deficits is one Alaska again finds itself confronting. The projection released by the Department of Revenue last week is bleak: Nowhere in the next 10 years does annual general fund revenue come close to the level of this year, a year in which we already face a mammoth deficit.

In short, it will only get worse.

The permanent fund had a value of about $27 billion in 2004, when the Legislature was seriously considering the POMV. The plan would give legislators access to about $1.35 billion using that fund valuation, to be split between dividends and government operations.

The permanent fund’s value has nearly doubled since then, to just less than $51 billion as of Thursday. Assuming that as a year-end value, the Percent of Market Value plan, were it in place today, would make $2.55 billion available to legislators for dividends and government.

The Percent of Market Value plan wouldn’t, by itself, prevent the projected budget gap of $3.5 billion that awaits new Gov. Bill Walker and the next Legislature. But it would most likely have made the budget gap smaller.

The Alaska House of Representatives approved the Percent of Market Value plan in 2004, but the Senate rejected it.

It failed in part because of hysteria. Not enough of our leaders stood up to those in the public who characterized the plan as a “raid” on the permanent fund. It is no such thing.

The Percent of Market Value plan is but one idea, but it is one that should be considered again, along with others.

What Alaska needs today are leaders who will be candid with Alaskans about the budget situation, who will offer equitable and sensible solutions - as the Percent of Market Value plan was 10 years ago - and who will have the courage to argue forcefully for their adoption.

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