When Rasmuson Foundation began its educational campaign about the state’s fiscal challenge almost a year ago, our goals were to ensure Alaskans were aware of the situation and concerned about it. We wanted citizens to become engaged in the dialogue about what kind of Alaska we envision for our kids and grandkids. And we wanted action this year so that all of the tools at our disposal could be enlisted in finding a solution. We wanted the Governor and the Legislature to prioritize the budget over all other issues during the current legislative session.
I am encouraged.
Today, 93 percent of Alaskans are aware of the Alaska budget gap and 43 percent are very concerned about it. Alaskans are participating in legislative hearings and community forums in record numbers. The State House halted action on all legislation that does not deal with fiscal issues. The Senate also has prioritized the budget.
After a full day in our state capital last week, including discussions with a dozen elected officials, I am confident that action will be taken this year to reduce the state fiscal gap. Painful budget cuts are on the table and citizens are weighing in about them, as well as their willingness to consider various new revenue options and use of Permanent Fund earnings.
At public forums where I have spoken over the past two weeks – in Kodiak, Girdwood, Southeast and Anchorage – a majority of people acknowledged that serious cuts are required to attain a sustainable state budget. When asked, 90 percent of those participants said they would be satisfied with a $1,000 Permanent Fund Dividend next year as a means to close the budget gap. A majority was also warm to the idea of a modest income tax or sales tax rather than see massive job losses, no capital spending and drastic service cuts.
Elected officials are hearing this message from voters. I spoke last week with leaders in the House and Senate, majority and minority, and every single one believes the budget gap can only be solved with a combination of cuts and new revenue. With just one exception, all the legislators I spoke with expressed confidence that this year’s legislative session would result in action to reduce the budget gap by at least half. Many told me they were willing to put their own political future at risk and will do what is right for Alaska, even if it’s unpopular with some voters.
Most of us don’t have the time, interest or gumption to run for public office. I applaud those who do, spending significant time away from family and friends and subjecting themselves to public criticism. The best thing we, as citizens, can do, is to participate in our democratic system and offer opinions and ideas to those we elected to govern.