OP-ED: Shiny New Legislative Building
No Place To Get People’s Work Done
Below is an Op-Ed I wrote yesterday. It explains why the Legislature’s work isn’t that hard, should be done by now, and why taking a break from work in the Capitol doesn’t move our work forward. The text is pasted below. As always, call or write if you have any questions!
Last week this legislative session should have been over. Instead it continued past its 90-day deadline, and the Governor rightly called a 30-day extension. Then the Republican-led majority voted for a break from work. That’s why legislators aren’t still in Juneau doing the public’s business.
I and other Democrats voted to keep working, and to reverse parts of a budget that treats oil companies better than children and seniors. We can do better than cut educational opportunity and public education.
I hope I’ll be proven wrong. Maybe after this break people will work across party lines, put down their disagreements, and work for a bi-partisan budget, and Medicaid Expansion and Reform, which has been opposed by much of the Legislature’s GOP leadership this session.
The latter will save hundreds of millions in state spending, and bring in $145 million in federal money that will ripple through the economy and create 4,000 needed jobs. The Governor’s also right that that we should pass a bill to reduce the amount of childhood sexual abuse.
And we need to work together to reverse the damage to academic opportunity that the current budget provides.
If I can agree with a Republican Governor, then Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature should be able to find ways to work together for a smarter budget.
The Governor first and foremost wants a bi-partisan budget that’s funded. This one isn’t funded. I and other Democrats didn’t vote to spend over $3 billion in state savings for a budget that so heavily favors oil companies at the expense of children and seniors.
Currently we have a budget that gives oil companies everything they ask for. So much for the idea some legislators repeated over and over that “everyone should feel the pain” of our current budget deficit.
I don’t think children should feel pain. Seniors who can’t afford medicine shouldn’t feel more pain. We can agree on smarter cuts.
The budget that passed pays oil companies $640 million more in tax credits than Alaska gets back in Production Taxes over the next two years. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call a law that pays oil companies more than we get back in Production Taxes insane. And a big reason for our huge deficit.
Democratic efforts to fix the most glaring zero and negative value loopholes in the law were blocked from a vote. That legislation, sponsored by myself and Senator Bill Wielechowski, would have provided for the biggest cut in Alaska’s budget deficit of anything passed this year. But the Legislature is too often divided along party lines.
How did children fare? Anchorage will lose roughly 80 teachers and support staff. Academic opportunity for children will suffer. That story will repeat itself across the state, in the Mat-Su, Fairbanks, and Juneau School districts, to name a few, as they struggle with years of on again, off again public education cuts.
Academic opportunity matters. A child shortchanged in first grade because of a crowded classroom doesn’t get to start again when schools are funded again someday in the future.
And eliminating state funded voluntary pre-k, and out-of-classroom parent pre-k training for those families that don’t want classroom pre-k, were mistakes. “Parents As Teachers” is a success in conservative and Democratic states, and teaches young parents what they need to know to help their pre-kindergarten aged children learn at home.
Studies show that children who go thorough pre-k, whether in or out of the classroom, graduate in higher numbers, are more likely to work as adults, and end up costing society less in prosecutors and jails. Eliminating state-funded pre-K eliminates chances in life.
There were smarter cuts. We don’t need a new glass Legislative Office Building in Anchorage that costs over $4 million a year when our last office cost $685,000. We could move into cheaper space at the State Office Building on 7th Avenue. That should have been a bi-partisan vote. But here we are, headed to the glass building in a few days when this break ends.
There were smarter cuts than to the Senior Benefits program the state adopted for low-income seniors after Governor Murkowski eliminated the Longevity Bonus.
We can’t afford the $6 billion Susitna Dam, and should use the funds left in that project to help cut the deficit. At a time of budget deficits, we can’t afford the $23 million Bragaw Road. We can’t afford $700 million a year in tax credits paid directly to oil companies if we are going to keep an oil law that gets Alaskans less Production Tax revenue than we pay out.
And here’s something to chew on. It’s a fact that our non-partisan Legislative Finance Division keeps repeating, but that doesn’t make it into the press much. Alaska’s $3+billion budget deficit is so big Alaska could fire every state General Fund-paid employee – and still only cut half the deficit. Cuts alone will harm children and seniors, and won’t fix this budget.
That makes it more curious that Sen. Wielechowski, my, and even Rep. Paul Seaton’s oil tax reform bills were blocked. Leaving loopholes in our oil tax will sink this state.
We have to close the budget gap. That means passing a scaled back budget, but protecting public education, a strong university, job training, and protecting seniors and abused and neglected children.
Rep. Les Gara (D-Anchorage)