An engaged Alaskan democracy

We shouldn’t waste the time before the budget wars begin again

Larry Persily, Published October 21, 2019, Anchorage Daily News

As the chances of a special legislative session this fall diminish, Alaskans have some extra time to think about how to fix the state’s fiscal future next year.

The Legislature will convene in regular session in less than 90 days and no doubt the budget, public services and long-term finances will dominate the debates — as they should. We’ve confronted — and at the same time avoided — the problems since the 1990s. The indecision is hurting our communities and Alaska’s economic future.

We’ve put off the decisions in election years for fear of punishment at the polls, and have been unable to solve them in non-election years because too many players are looking ahead to the next campaign.

All the while, the big-number options for balancing spending and revenues are unchanged despite years of arguing, spreadsheets and town halls: Cut state spending on public services; collect taxes from individual Alaskans, non-resident workers and/or visitors; increase taxes on oil production; use Permanent Fund earnings and adjust the calculation for the annual Permanent Fund dividend.

People can talk all they want about railroads to Canada, roads to remote Alaska mining districts, mythical North Slope natural gas pipelines and hypothetical benefits of being “open for business” (whatever that overused slogan means), but the mathematical reality is that none of the above politically inflated legends could ever produce enough state revenue to avoid the hard decisions on public services, taxes and the size of the PFD.

Our decisions should be based on reality, not dreams.

Those decisions on public services, taxes and the PFD are uncomfortable, even painful to many, and all are politically dangerous, maybe even politically deadly. But waiting any longer isn’t going to make some new option appear out of nowhere or make the problems go away, just like the broccoli isn’t going to disappear from the 12-year-old’s plate no matter how long he avoids it.

The solution is all of the above (minus the broccoli). Everyone benefits in the long term if everyone contributes. The odds of political success are better if everyone jumps together.

In the 1969 film, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Robert Redford and Paul Newman survived when they jumped off the cliff together. Sure, they were being chased by a posse for robbing a train — unlike Alaska, which is being chased by fiscal reality — but the solution is the same: Take the leap together.

Which means legislators and the governor — and the public — need to work next year toward a comprehensive plan for a healthy, stable long-term fiscal future for Alaska.

Which means permanently restructuring the dividend formula to an affordable level that can pay Alaskans for decades.

It means spending enough on public services to protect and educate Alaskans, while building for the future, but resisting spending on programs and special projects that are beyond the role of government.

It means looking at a broad-based tax on individuals, so that all Alaskans, and the guests who enjoy and prosper during their time in the state, contribute.

And it means the oil industry should not be excused from the collective answer.

That doesn’t mean expecting the oil industry to solve all our problems with one big check, like the backers of the oil tax initiative promote. The industry knows it will always be a deep pocket in Alaska. What worries the decision-makers in corporate offices is the 40-year history that they are the only pocket we reach into. That attitude among many Alaskans, and the resulting fear among the industry, is destructive of future investment.

Our best hope is that the higher-oil-taxes-solve-everything lobby, the don’t-touch-my-PFD lobby, the no-new-taxes lobby, and the cut-spending lobby will put down their signs, stifle their campaign rhetoric, stop their Facebook attacks and find an all-of-the-above compromise.

Larry Persily is a longtime Alaska journalist, with breaks for federal, state and municipal jobs in oil and gas and taxes, including deputy commissioner at the Alaska Department of Revenue 1999-2003. He is teaching journalism this fall at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

It’s Probably Worse than you Think

By Cliff Groh, Nov 4, 2019, Anchorage Press

Alaska’s fiscal outlook is bad due to factors such as drooping oil prices, long-falling Alaska oil production, and an absence of broad-based taxes. The non-partisan Alaska Legislative Finance Division projects that starting next year, the State faces annual deficits exceeding $1 billion under current law and the most likely assumptions.

But that gloomy scenario probably understates our fiscal squeeze. Numerous other factors either threaten future revenues or create pressures for spending to increase.

Let’s start by looking at some of those upward pressures on the budget: the unfunded liabilities of the state government’s pension systems; the capital budget; and refundable oil tax credits.

The State of Alaska is paying off the unfunded liabilities previously built up in the Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS) and the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) under an officially adopted payoff plan that runs at least until Fiscal 2039. Actuaries project that the annual installments under that plan will increase every year but one, and also project that those installments will total more than $8 billion over the decades. Changing demographics and shifts in financial markets, however, could increase that total price tag over the next two decades.

The capital budget was probably too large in some years of high oil revenues. That spending for buildings and other infrastructure has fallen substantially in the last half-dozen years, however, and this year it is less than $150 million in General Fund spending. Experts see that number as too low. The Office of Management and Budget estimated in 2018 that the State of Alaska has needs for deferred maintenance totaling $1.87 billion. One observer’s calculation is that the annual capital budget should be at a minimum tripled to start catching up on that backlog.

Then there’s refundable oil tax credits, an obligation which the Alaska Department of Revenue estimated at $700 million in June of 2019. The State has proposed to pay off the credits through a bond program now in litigation while paying zero for the credits in the current year’s budget. The obligation to pay the oil tax credits is much weaker legally than the obligation to pay in full the pension system benefits, which are explicitly protected in the Alaska Constitution.

Now let’s turn to the revenue side of the equation. Climate change poses a systemic fiscal danger to our state.

The evidence of this global phenomenon is all around us. Humans are changing their behavior in reaction to the changing physical world. The use of electric cars may blow past gasoline-powered vehicles by 2040. Oil companies are changing their names to shed their oil-only images and are focusing increasingly on wind, solar, and other renewable sources. Carbon taxes are likely to further reduce the demand for oil worldwide. At least one major energy producer—Norway-based Elsinor (formerly Statoil)—has projected that oil demand could start to decline by 2030, as Alaska Public Media’s Elizabeth Harball noted in 2018.

Climate change already appears to be reducing oil production from Alaska’s North Slope, as long-time oil industry observer Tim Bradner has pointed out. The Arctic is warming at rates twice as fast as regions further south, and those higher temperatures thaw permafrost and reduce the efficiency of oil-producing facilities.

The climate change news will probably get substantially worse for Alaska. Energy companies recognize that there is a growing possibility that the warming planet will lead to significant amounts of oil now ticketed to be produced to end up in the ground unburned. Some of that oil stranded by climate change is likely to be on the North Slope, in part because that region is expensive to work in and high-cost provinces are most likely to be the home of stranded oil.

Over the next year—and over the next 10 years or so—the downside risks for Alaska on the fiscal front appear to exceed the upside potential. Alaskans should prepare accordingly.

Cliff Groh is an Anchorage lawyer and writer as well as the legislative assistant who worked the most on the bill in 1982 that created the Permanent Fund Dividend we have today. He also designed a course he taught at the University of Alaska called “Navigating Alaska’s Fiscal and Economic Challenges.” This is the ninth installment of a continuing series on the Permanent Fund Dividend and Alaska’s fiscal system.

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