An engaged Alaskan democracy

Reflections on Democracy and Freedom

Stephanie M. Nichols
July 2023

I began these reflections in mid-December 2022, about a month after I returned to the United States from
my Marshall Memorial Fellowship in Europe. I have been thinking since then that I will have an epiphany
and everything I am thinking and wanting to say will perfectly and coherently emerge and write itself. So far, that hasn’t happened, but I want to start somewhere so here I am.

After an arduous and lengthy application process, back in 2019 I had the good fortune of being selected by the German Marshall Fund as one of 30 Americans for a Marshall Memorial Fellowship. The fellowship is born out of the Marshall Plan that was implemented after WWII. It is a leadership program for a small group of Europeans and Americans that focuses on building and strengthening transatlantic partnerships.

I was originally scheduled to travel to Europe in March 2020. On that March 3rd morning, nearly 10 days
before I was to depart my home in Anchorage, Alaska, and with my bags already packed, the fellowship was postponed indefinitely. While the borders in Europe closed, the world as we knew it also shut down around us. Finally, after over three years and starting this past October, I embarked on one of the most
transformative experiences of my life at a particularly critical time in our history. Europe in 2022 will reside in the history books as a time like nothing we have seen since perhaps 1939.

After briefings in Washington DC, the American fellows flew across the Atlantic and began our meetings in Brussels, Belgium, at NATO Headquarters, a place that was created in the aftermath of WWII for the
purpose of securing peace in Europe. Its purpose also intended to guard its members’ freedom due to the
impending threat of the then-Soviet Union.

After we passed through NATO security, I was immediately struck by the eerie resemblance of today. Europe has a war on its doorstep as Ukraine fights not only for itself and its own sovereign existence, but also for all of us in defense of textbook democracy. I left realizing not only the powerful role of the United States in NATO but also that NATO is experiencing its most defining test and preparations since its inception.

From Brussels, we traveled to Hamburg, Germany, where the people are rightfully proud of their stunning
and diverse city. On a whirlwind tour with a retired German school teacher as our guide, I witnessed the
beautiful modern parts of Hamburg that were long-ago rebuilt after WWII. I was struck by Hamburg’s
punctuality and no-nonsense no-frills efficiency that covers a warmth and care that often goes unnoticed. It’s no wonder I felt at home there as a large part of my family immigrated to the United States from small
farming communities just outside of Hamburg.

After Germany I spent a week in Rome where we met with various dignitaries while Italy’s new prime
minister was implementing new and unprecedented laws almost daily. Experts across the country, including many with whom we met, were reacting to the implications of these laws and trying to predict what would come next. Since I was in Rome and Notre Dame has a campus there, I had to pay it a visit. I was entertained to learn that Notre Dame insisted on having its own chapel even though there are a plethora of thousand year old churches on every nearby street. Between gelato, wine, and pasta, Rome at night has to be one of the most magical places on earth. Around each corner is another beautifully lit scene that punctuates their postcards.

From Rome, I traveled to Belgrade, Serbia, a country that has chosen not to repair the areas that were
bombed by NATO during the 1990’s because, in their own words, they want to remember those hard times. My first view of the city saw some of the scars from those bombings as our plane entered Belgrade.
Throughout my stay there, I never once heard any recognition for why NATO dropped its bombs in 1999,
and Tito remains their unquestionable hero.

Belgrade has some of the worst air quality of any city in the world and many days it surpasses Shanghai. The permanent cloud of thick pollution that covers the city soon became stuck in our throats and aptly
personified my time there.

My stay in Serbia was oftentimes unsettling, but it is certainly where I learned the most. I got a small glimpse of what it might feel like to live in a country void of true democracy and to reflect upon what freedom really means. At the same time and in what felt like an entire world away, and under a November full moon, the United States midterm elections were taking place. I saw “F%$K the USA” and Russian “Z’s” spraypainted on the side of buildings, Hitler’s Mein Kampf displayed at the bookstore near our hotel, and Putin’s face silkscreened on t-shirts for sale in central Belgrade. It may seem that Serbia’s official position of “neutral” regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not only a cop-out but a misrepresentation at best.

As we drove to the Belgrade airport to leave the country, I looked up at the exact right moment to catch the words “Remember Kosovo is Serbia” painted in English on an overpass – a clear reminder of the continued unrest and disagreement with the West in recognizing Kosovo’s independence as its own country. This unrest significantly escalated during the short time we were in Serbia, and we heard frequent predictions that another war is likely on the horizon.

The fellowship ended in Paris where we spent several days exploring the city and visiting the U.S. Embassy. I was struck by the fact that a new café exists every 20 feet, and I ironically had some of the best Thai food of my life in Paris. I also made note of the fact nobody got coffee drinks to-go. While this wasn’t unique to France since Italy was similar in this regard, it didn’t occur to me until Paris that I had not gotten to-go coffee since I left the United States. I’m sure it goes without saying that the art of actually sitting and enjoying conversations with a warm drink is something Europeans due on another level than Americans.

After an incredible month crisscrossing Europe, I began the epically long journey back across the globe to
Alaska where I had ample time to reflect on the many briefings and discussions over the past month. In every city and country we visited, the issues that were consistently top of mind were: Ukraine, climate change, and China – in that order.

Upon returning home I began tutoring a Ukrainian still living in Kyiv to assist him in furthering his English
skills. During one of our sessions, I apologized for the loud jet noise outside my house as the United States military conducted their routine Saturday morning practice flights.

He asked, “Are those United States Air Force fighter jets?”

When I said they were, he unequivocally shared, “If I could hear U.S. fighter jets outside my window, I would sleep really well at night.”

Between hearing his perspective and the many ways I witnessed the United States’ profound place in the
world throughout my time in Europe, I will never hear those fighter jets the same way again nor will I
apologize for them.
The wisdom of the Marshall Plan whose legacy continues to be carried out through the German Marshall
Fund and this fellowship are more crucial now than ever as so much in our world hangs in the balance. We are at a tipping point in history, and we each have a responsibility to forge a new and better future for our next generations.

I returned home from this fellowship loving my country, despite our persistent shortcomings, not only more than I thought possible, but even more than I thought necessary.

I close with giving my full respect to the people of Ukraine and all those who fight to defend freedom and
democracy around the world. To quote Willie Nelson in his song, Living in the Promiseland, “The prayer of
every [person] is to know how freedom feels.” No matter who we are, no matter where we live, those words ring true for each and every one of us.

Alaska Common Ground – Our First 30 years

Peg Tileston – Founding Board Member
Comments at ACG’s 30th Anniversary Celebration – June 1, 2022

Peg Tileston at 30th Anniversary Celebration

In the beginning…

Like many things, Alaska Common Ground was conceived from a combination of a muddled political and economic situation and a person determined to do something about it.

That person was our founder, Esther Wunnicke. Esther understood the importance of the role of public participation in forming good public policy. She had been on the Federal Field Commission that helped put Alaska back together after the 1964 earthquake and the Federal-State Land Use Commission that held hundreds of hearings all over the state that led to the formation of the Alaska National Interest Lands Act. She finished her career as the Alaska Commissioner of Natural Resources.

When Esther retired from public service, Alaska was just emerging from economic turmoil caused by a significant drop in oil prices and a banking collapsed that devastated the housing market. On the political side Wally Hickel had just won the governor’s race against Arliss Sturgulewski and Tony Knowles with just 39 per cent of the vote.

Esther was appalled that a governor could be elected with such a small percentage of the voters. She was determined to do something, and Alaska Common Ground was born. Her letter of invitation to join with her read.

 “As a citizen devoted to the people of Alaska and dedicated to “doing the public’s business in a public manner”, you are invited to join AlASKA COMMON GROUND and to be an organizing member of this new group. The purpose of ALASKA COMMON GROUND is to provide a forum for Alaskans from all walks of life and all parts of the state to address public policy issues and find areas of agreement. We believe such public discussion and policy agreement are vital to the future of Alaska.”

That organizational meeting was held in the Pioneer School House on October 26, 1991. Forty-seven attended the meeting, some of whom are still members. Then as now, Alaska’s fiscal policy and the encouragement of citizen involvement was the major focus of the meeting. There was no question attendees felt that Alaska Common Ground was needed and would be supported.

The first and second forums we held could be titles for forums today – Groping Through the Gap and Should There Be a Constitutional Convention. Sound familiar?

Whither Alaska’s fiscal plan

Without question, the bulk of our forums and policy papers have focused on Alaska’s growing fiscal problems. Forum panelists over the years have included Governors Hammond, Hickel, Knowles and Sheffield, numerous legislators, many agency folks, and community leaders. Virtually all agreed that Alaska should have a long-term fiscal plan and the sooner the better.  There have been very few years that we have not held at least one fiscal forum, several of which were televised statewide. Have they made a difference? It’s hard to say, but we will continue to address the issue because it is too important ignore.

Better correction system

We do know that our forums can have a real impact. We joined with Partners for Progress to hold two forums on Cost Effective Justice: New Directions for Prisoner Rehabilitation and Re-entry. We brought Texas Representative Jerry Madden up to share what he had been able to do there to cut costs and yet have a more effective correctional system. He not only took apart in our forums, but also went to Juneau to meet with legislators. The late Sen. Johnny Ellis wrote, “It’s time we work together, get smart on crime, and bend the corrections cost curve.”  With Sen. Ellis’ leadership, Senate Billl 64-The Omnibus Crime/Correction Bill passed in the next legislative session.

Let’s talk

Is it possible to get people of diverse opinions to talk together about difficult issues? Understanding Neighbors did just that. Working with Out North Theater and the Interfaith Alliance of Anchorage, with financial support from the Ford Foundation’s Animating Democracy Initiative, we brought over 100 participants together to talk about the Role of Same-Sex Relationships in Our Community. A participants noted, “People talk different languages. When someone says words like love or understanding or acceptance or hatred, we don’t know what it means. We each have our own definition and if there is something called understanding for me it is the ability to listen to another person and try to understand how they perceive things.”

The process of Understanding Neighbors was one of growth, not only for the participants but also for the Alaska Common Ground board. As Taylor Brelsford put it, “We spent many hours, several times a month in the planning and implementing of this project.  Building relations among the disparate organizations and finding a common perspective among the several strong personalities was challenging but altogether necessary, and ultimately successful.  An ambitious project addressing a controversial issue could not come to fruition any other way.”  

Addressing differences

A project that was near and dear to Esther was addressing the different needs of Urban Alaska and Rural Alaska. We held two forums that nearly filled UAA’s Wendy Williamson auditorium. It was exciting to experience the diversity and deep interest in the topic. Alaska is indeed a big state with major cultural differences and lifestyles. The forums pointed out how important it is to understand each other and build better relationships. How can Alaska with such a diverse population, living in small villages and large population centers address the needs of both?  Certainly, it requires effective communication and a great deal of respect on both sides.

Say ahh

Health care took center stage when we addressed the Rising Cost of Health Care with two programs. Alaska costs are partially driven by geography and distance and our small market with little competition. This disparity is higher in Alaska than outside particularly for some specialists, as an example, 43 percent higher for pediatricians and 83 percent higher for cardiologists. The average hospital costs were 38 percent higher here. These figures may be even higher now since the forums was held in 2017 and 2018.

There is no single or simple solution for reducing health care costs. The Alaska Health Care Commission recommended eight core strategies and about 75 specific State policies to address the issue. Among them, medical testing and treatment decisions should be based on the best available evidence of effectiveness. Also, we should change the way we pay for care from payment for individual services to one based on outcomes. The recommendations stress the importance of prevention and support for health choices. and the need to empower individuals and decision-makers with easily accessible information on health care prices, quality, and health outcomes. The Commission noted the Alaska State Legislature has many policy levers that it could pull to help stabilize and even reduce health care prices and overall health spending in our state.

Yes, it’s warmer now

Climate change affects Alaska significantly. Our forums brought together major players trying to develop adequate responses to the problem. Erosion, subsidence, flooding, and wildfires are the most obvious impacts but there are many more subtle changes occurring. The forums discussed these and also addressed the things Alaskans can do to at least mitigate the amount of change. We looked at buildings and energy use, land use and transportation, food supply, and solid waste management as ways to make a difference. As is often the case, community action is the key to success.

Let’s be smart about travel

From Here to the Future: Transforming Anchorage/Mat-Su Transportation Series focused on how we get around now and in the future. We invited Rollin Stanley, General Manager of Urban Strategy in Calgary, to discuss the technology and demographics of transportation. We then brought Mayor Paul Soglin, from Madison, Wisconsin here who talked to us about a multimodal transportation system for all weather conditions. Both Mayor Soglin and Rollin Stanley met with municipal transportation and land use planners for ways we might improve our systems. We all use and are affected by multiple forms of transportation, so it was appropriate the final program of the series emphasized the importance of public participation in transportation and land use planning.

We have held many more forums ranging from Coping with Y2K to Welfare in Alaska. Go to our website for more information.

In conclusion

Over the years we have worked with many organizations, not the least of which is the League of Women Voters. We greatly appreciate these partnerships. We are grateful for the Anchorage Municipal Library who help publicize our activities and hosted meetings, such as Let’s Talk Alaska Dialogue sessions. We were delighted that KTUU/Channel 2 worked with us to produced and air the “We are Alaskans” Public Service Announcements featuring the East High School Swing Choir.

The first resolution the board passed was against holding a Constitutional Convention as being unnecessary, expensive, disruptive, and counterproductive. We take the same position today as we did then as we prepare for another vote on the call for a Constitutional Convention on the ballot this November.

These last three years have certainly been a challenge, but we have learned to use Zoom to reach those outside of the Anchorage area. We are truly becoming a statewide organization, a realization of Esther’s dream.

Unlike most organizations, Alaska Common Ground depends NOT on staff but on its board of directors and talented volunteers to plan and carry out our programs. Our board is a hard-working, dedicated group. We have been fortunate to have the assistance of a part-time support person over the years. Mei Mei Evans was first on the scene. Janet Bidwell came next, and Kari Gardey is with us now. We thank them for their incredible help!

It’s been an exciting 30 years! Public policy touches all of us even though we don’t give it much thought. Alaska Common Ground continues to be dedicated to the premise that informed citizens can and do make a difference.

Finally Fixing Alaska’s Long-Term Fiscal Issues

With fewer than 20 days left in the 2022 Alaska Legislative session, the Board of Alaska Common Ground encourages our members and friends to contact their legislative representatives to act now on long-term solutions to the state’s fiscal situation.

There are hopeful signs from both the Legislature and Administration that our representatives are serious about finally fixing Alaska’s long-standing fiscal problems. That is, balancing revenues and expenditures to avoid a long-term structural deficit.

Last summer the Legislature formed a bipartisan and bicameral Fiscal Policy Working Group to delve into the State’s fiscal problems and try to develop practical solutions. A consensus-based and well-reasoned final report was released in August that presented a set of recommended actions that would comprehensively address the fiscal issues and problems. However, despite three special sessions, in 2021 the Legislature took no actions to solve the problems.

In the current legislative session there has been progress in fixing the State’s fiscal problems. The Senate Finance Committee has approved Senate Bill (SB) 199 for consideration by the full Senate. SB 199 would set the percentage of the draw for state services and for PFDs from the Permanent Fund earnings. The draw would be 50/50 (state services/PFD) in FY 23, then be 75/25 until 2026. If in 2026 the State increases its revenues by $800 million to create a balanced budget, the draw would revert to 50/50; if not, it would remain 75/25. As of April 29, the Seante has not yet scheduled a vote on SB 199.

The House has passed a state operating budget for FY 23 that contains a PFD at $1,250 with an additional $1,300 energy relief check for each eligible Alaskan—when added together the payment would be essentially the same as SB 199 for FY 23. 

The House-passed budget would do some other prudent things with this year’s surplus revenue created by the recent higher-than-expected oil prices, including forward-funding K-12 education for FY 24, paying the remainder of oil and gas tax credits owed to producers, transferring over $1 billion to the constitutionally protected part (the principal) of the Permanent Fund, and rebuilding state savings accounts to about $2.2 billion (after being depleted by a decade of deficit spending).

In addition to the Legislature’s progress toward a sound fiscal plan, the Administration has expressed strong support for fixing Alaska’s long-standing fiscal problems. In a recent opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News, Commissioner of Revenue Lucinda Mahoney stated: “We are presented with an opportunity to establish a fiscal plan. But policymakers must make a choice; we can spend our surpluses like policymakers of the past have — leaving us in an unstable fiscal situation when oil revenues dry up, or we can enact sound fiscal policies such as establishing an effective spending cap, replenishing savings, and establishing firm rules for spending the Permanent Fund distributions.”

There are significant differences of position on what a “sound fiscal plan” should contain, but there is strong interest from all the primary players in getting to such a plan.

Now, before the Legislature adjourns on or before May 18, is the time for Alaskans to let their representatives know we want a sound fiscal plan drafted and enacted, and that there have been way too many years of “kicking that can down the road.”

Some suggested “talking points” to communicate to your representatives are:

  • The State must have a sound and sustainable fiscal plan.
  • The plan must provide a structure for adequate funding of state services, capital improvements, a sustainable PFD, and other State financial obligations. It must also provide for continued growth of the Permanent Fund.
  • If the plan provides for a 50/50 draw from the Permanent Fund earnings for state services and the PFD, it must include new sources of State revenue so that there is no deficit spending.
  • Now is the time to develop and enact the plan. It is no longer an option for the Legislature to “Kick the can down the road.”

You can find legislator contact information and look up who represents you here. Scroll down to the bottom of the page if you need to look up your representatives.

Reflections on ACG’s Second Decade and Our Momentum

By Peg Tileston, Current and Founding ACG Board Member

Alaska Common Ground (ACG) launched into its second decade with enthusiasm and energy. Relying on our knowledgeable, hard-working board of directors to plan and produce forums and other issue responses, we continued to address Alaska’s fiscal morass and took on several other major projects.

ACG sent board members to the annual Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington DC for several years. The conference brought together participants to examine various states’ budgets, the variety of revenue opportunities, as well as how each dealt with difficult public policy issues. From contacts made at the conferences, ACG worked with the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy to produce two publications dealing with Alaska’s budgetary problems: “Hard Choices” and “The Impact of Three Revenue Options for Alaska”.

Encouraging dialogue continued to be a major component of ACG’s efforts during this period. We joined with Out North Theater and the Anchorage Interfaith Alliance to develop Understanding Neighbors, funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation which supported the use of art to encourage dialogue on difficult public issues. The theme was “The Role of Same Sex Relationships in Our Community”. Over 100 Anchorage participants were engaged and organized in groups with trained moderators leading sessions. Artists produced a series of videos that were shown at the start of each session to encourage thinking about the topic in a different way. Understanding Neighbors successfully deepened the way participants were able to talk about an uncomfortable issue and ACG received high praise for its role in the project and its outcome.

Our Let’s Talk Alaska and Deliberative Democracy initiatives brought citizens together in informal, respectful settings to share ideas and concerns on issues of importance to them. And with funding from the Atwood Foundation, and in conjunction with KTUU, ACG produced a series of public service announcements “We Are Alaskans” that emphasized the importance of Alaska’s diversity and the need to work together. All told, between 2001 and 2010, ACG presented over 18 forums on a variety of subjects. 

ACG Weighs in on Constitutional Convention

On the November general election ballot, Alaskan voters will be asked “Shall there be a Constitutional Convention”. At the March 16 board meeting, Alaska Common Ground’s Board of Directors unanimously passed a resolution supporting a “No” vote. Alaska’s Constitution has been held up as a model state constitution that secures our heritage of political, civil and religious liberty. A Constitutional Convention could re-write the entire Alaska Constitution. Groups advocating changes to Alaskan’s elections, judiciary, hunting and fishing rights, rights to privacy, Permanent Fund, and more are already laying out plans for fundamental and extremely controversial changes to our Constitution. These issues will pit Alaskans against each other, with out-of-state individuals and organizations pushing their national agendas that will not be in the best interest of Alaskans. The board is concerned that a Constitutional Convention during these polarized times will be contentious, costly and time consuming. Alaska Common Ground rarely takes positions on issues before the voters, but in the past has opposed a Constitutional Convention for similar reasons. We have joined “Defend Our Constitution”, a nonpartisan and broad-based coalition of Alaskans and Alaskan organizations to urge a “No” vote on this issue. 

ACG March 16, 2022, Resolution opposed to a Constitutional Convention

Reflections on ACG’s First Decade and Our Founder’s Vision

By Peg Tileston, Current and Founding ACG Board Member

Alaska Common Ground was founded in the fall of 1991. Alaska was just coming out of a severe financial depression caused primarily by bank failures. The political situation was messy which caused considerable consternation across the state. Walter Hickel had just been elected with approximately 41 percent of the vote.

It was out of this chaos the desire for an organization that focused on sound public policy was fostered. The effort was led by Esther Wunnicke – former Commissioner of Natural Resources, member of the Federal/State Land Use Planning Commission, and staunch advocate for strong citizen participation in government decision-making.

The first topic ACG engaged was whether Alaska should hold a Constitutional Convention. Alaska’s constitution requires a yes/no vote by Alaskan voters every ten years. A position paper and a forum described the numerous problems a yes vote would entail, not the least of which would be tearing apart a document considered one of the best state constitutions in the country. 

Alaska’s fiscal situation has held ACG’s attention since it started – from 1992 to 2000 alone, we held 10 forums (two of which were televised statewide). Forums on numerous other public policy issues were held too and ranged from Alaska’s high cost of health care to reconciling our urban-rural split to the role of the university. ACG produced position papers on these and other topics, most of which are still available on ACG’s website here and as we know… still relevant today.

ACG is extremely fortunate and grateful for the wisdom of Esther Wunnicke, Peg Tileston – and all our founding board/members – who set the organization on a solid path over 30 years ago. We recognize and thank this inspiring group of Alaskans that also includes Beryl Johnson, John Havelock, Wilda Hudson, John Reeder, Julie Kitka, and Pauline Utter.

Check out the original invitation to join ACG here.

Find all the current and former board members here.

Report on the Alaska Legislature: Decisions, Divisions, and Visions

By Cliff Groh – September 29, 2021 

The Alaska Legislature completed this year’s third special session September 14 by passing an $1,100 Permanent Fund Dividend for this fall and failing to adopt a fiscal plan. Gov. Mike Dunleavy reluctantly accepted the $1,100 amount while vowing to fight for a higher Dividend. He also issued a proclamation directing the Legislature to return for a fourth special session starting in Juneau on Monday, October 4 to address the short agenda of “an act or acts relating to a fiscal plan.” 

Observers are split on the likelihood of that fourth special session producing a sustainable fix to the State of Alaska’s structural fiscal deficit.

The Case for Optimism

You can find optimists regarding how fast Alaska can resolve its fiscal gap, and they include well-informed legislators such as Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich (D.-Anchorage) and Rep. Ivy Spohnholz (D.-Anchorage), Chair of the House Ways & Means Committee. They tend to cite the recent work of the Fiscal Plan Working Group that achieved agreement on the description of the problem and came up with solutions. That bipartisan and bicameral panel delivered a report last month with 10 substantive recommendations.

Sen. Begich told The Hill last week that lawmakers are concentrating on four main elements to produce a sustainable fiscal plan, and the four on his list are a shorter version of the Fiscal Plan Working Group’s 10:

  • Changing the formula for calculating the Dividend each year
  • Embedding in the Constitution the allocation of Permanent Fund earnings between Dividends and public services/projects (in practice, constitutionalizing the allocation would seem to resolve the question of the Dividend formula by setting the dollars available for the annual Dividend)
  • Imposing a tighter spending limit
  • Adding new revenues

The Case for Pessimism

Pessimists, on the other hand, have their own long list of reasons why no deal will be reached this next (fourth) special session. The obstacles include: 

  • A highly divided Legislature on ideological and philosophical lines
  • A public that includes many Alaskans with unrealistic expectations of a relatively painless solution to Alaska’s structural deficit
  • A tiny House Majority Coalition that finds it difficult to conduct business on the floor
  • Fractures in the Senate that effectively produce two caucuses within the Senate Majority, with rumors flying that the Senate (and—less plausibly—the House) will re-organize soon
  • Tribalism within the Legislature that has combined with fear of social media exposure to reduce the after-hours cross-party socializing that used to make compromises easier
  • An unusually high degree of rancor and even “hatred” within the Capitol
  • A Governor and a group of legislative allies who refuse to support legislation that would pay for the jumbo Dividends that this faction has advocated, preferring instead to overdraw the Permanent Fund as “bridge” funding for a transition to sustainability

Wild Cards:   Gov. Dunleavy’s Re-Election Campaign, Reapportionment, and a Potential Constitutional Convention

Alaska had the most complex fiscal politics in the United States before we got to this 2021-2022 election cycle, and now three other elements make it even more complicated.

First, there is the odd role of Gov. Dunleavy. He has staunch supporters among Republican lawmakers. It is striking, however, how much opposition he triggers among powerful Republican legislators as well as in Democrats. Fierce critics of the Governor’s approach to fiscal matters include GOP lawmakers like Sens. Bert Stedman of Sitka, Click Bishop of Fairbanks, and Natasha von Imhof of Anchorage. (Each are members of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, and Stedman and Bishop are the Co-Chairs.)

There is much speculation in the Capitol among the bipartisan anti-Dunleavy group about what steps would be most likely to help or harm his chances for re-election. Thus the Governor’s proposed constitutional amendment for a 50/50 allocation of Permanent Fund earnings is held up for reasons both substantive and political. That is, the opposition is powered not only by fears of billion-dollar deficits, but by concerns that putting that amendment on the ballot would aid the Dunleavy campaign.

Then there’s reapportionment. House Republican legislators lament the fact that there is a House Majority Coalition mostly composed of Democrats when the voters elected six more Republicans than Democrats to the House, and they hope that the redistricting that occurs for next year’s election will produce a Republican-only House majority in 2023. This thinking tends to make some Republicans reluctant to compromise and want instead to wait until more like-minded lawmakers arrive in Juneau. Conversely, some Democrats advise making a deal now to avoid a more difficult environment after this current 32nd Legislature ends.

Finally, there are hopes and fears about another once-in-10-years event, the vote in November of 2022 on whether to have a constitutional convention. This could be the biggest game-changer in Alaska politics, both regarding fiscal matters and a whole bunch of other subjects.  The political dynamics of a potential constitutional convention resemble those of reapportionment, with those who believe they will benefit wanting to hold up on big decisions and those who are scared of coming up on the short end later feeling incentives to move now.

The Upshot:   It’s Probably Unlikely that a Fourth Special Session Will Produce a Big Fiscal Fix, and a Higher Dividend than $1,100 This Year Depends on that Big Fiscal Fix

Matt Buxton of the Midnight Sun Memo wrote last week that:   “I think that right now the chances are high that the Legislature may just immediately gavel out [of the fourth special session] or just let the session simmer with the occasional hearing and plenty of technical floor sessions.”

That prediction may well be correct, and it might not go far enough.

Some lawmakers and observers are pushing for the Legislature to work with the Governor to cancel the fourth special session and hold off on big fiscal decisions until the regular session starts in January, when legislators have more time and more staff than in the special sessions (which are constitutionally limited to 30 days).

Paying a Dividend of more than $1,100 this year would require some combination of overdrawing the Permanent Fund/raising taxes/additional budget cuts, so most Legislature watchers believe that achieving a long-term fix would be necessary before there would be the votes to appropriate more money for a larger Dividend.

The Competing Visions Undergirding the Divisions

Counteracting these negative factors to produce a sustainable fix to Alaska’s structural fiscal deficit is going to take leadership, courage, creativity, and a spirit of compromise. Whatever the timing, the way those big decisions will come out depends on the visions driving them.

This is particularly true given just how deep the gulf is over which way Alaska will go. Contrast two big-picture looks at our state’s future.

The Alaska Municipal League has catalogued an “infrastructure deficit”  regarding improvements to highways, deferred maintenance of State-owned buildings and schools, broadband, ports and harbors, housing, and other categories that totals more than $27 billion. (You can find this list at the “Unfunded & Underfunded Priorities” section at on the Internet.)  Supporters see these items as critical investments to help make the 49th State desirable and competitive in the necessary transition away from an economy and a fiscal system based on oil. Backers of this vision tend to push for taxes to pay for spending on this list as well as other items.

An influential Republican legislator pointed towards a different path in a meeting with me this month, however. After acknowledging that after adjusting for inflation and population growth the State of Alaska is now spending at levels seen in the 1970s, the lawmaker suggested that the spending should go down to the levels of the 1960s. Advocates for this approach stress the importance of much greater additional cuts to the conventional budget paired with jumbo Dividends.

Alaskans need to decide which vision is more desirable for our state.

Cliff Groh has been a board member of Alaska Common Ground for more than 20 years. As a Board member he has facilitataed discussion of the state fiscal situation and as an individual has been a strong advocate for solving the state’s fiscal problems. He spent the just-concluded third special session in Juneau meeting with legislators and legislative staff (while agreeing not to identify them), and he also writes an e-mail newsletter called “Fiscal Cliff’s Notes.”  (You could get on the list by writing him at, and you can read it in blog form at  

Alaska’s Cockpit Standoff and the Need to Land the Plane

Cliff Groh, Opinion Piece in the Anchorage Daily News, July 29, 2021

The Alaska Legislature has created a Comprehensive Fiscal Plan Working Group to produce a fiscal plan before the Legislature convenes again in a special session currently set to start August 2. Unusually, this informal joint committee includes equal representation from each caucus in the House and the Senate.  Depressingly, there is a substantial chance that the Legislature will either do nothing or something very short-term this year.

Either outcome would be unacceptable. It is difficult to solve the State of Alaska’s yawning structural deficit, and it is also urgent to do so. 

It’s hard to come up with a fiscal fix largely because Alaska appears to have the nation’s most complicated fiscal politics. The fiscal policy here on the Great Land is pretty complicated by itself. The law that the Legislature adopted in 2018 to spend Permanent Fund earnings sustainably in the budget is a novel—and little-understood—concept for a state government.   That legal change three years ago created a system called Percent of Market Value (POMV).  Under the POMV system, Permanent Fund earnings now provide more than 60 percent of the State of Alaska’s revenues—making Alaska more of an endowment state than an oil state.  The details of oil taxes are complex as well.

But it’s the politics of paying for what the State of Alaska does that are really complicated.

In every other state, deciding how to pay for the budget is basically like a two-sided wrestling match between people who mostly see themselves as budget beneficiaries and people who mostly view themselves as taxpayers. 

In Alaska, by contrast, it’s all different. The Permanent Fund Dividend, the Permanent Fund, and oil taxes combine to make it much weirder on the Last Frontier. In Alaska, fiscal politics resemble a movie scene where five people are pointing guns at each other in the cockpit of an airplane—and the airplane is running out of fuel. Instead of a straightforward two-wrestler match, Alaska has a hopped-up cross of Reservoir Dogs and Snakes on a Plane.

As is usually true in politics, the people with guns in the cockpit are defined by what they fear the most. Let’s go through them one by one—and put a face on each person holding guns.    

One person pointing pistols is someone who most fears additional cuts to the conventional budget. Think of a parent activist in Great Alaska Schools concerned about the education of that parent’s children, given that the State of Alaska pays close to 75 percent of the total costs of K-12 education in Alaska and K-12 spending is more than a fifth of the State budget. 

The second person with guns up is someone who most fears the restoration of broad-based taxes in Alaska, particularly a graduated personal income tax like our state had from 1949 to 1980. That second person might  be a surgeon—I’ve met one who made $5.5 million in net income from work in our state in one year without paying a penny of broad-based taxes to the State of Alaska. 

The third person holding guns is someone most afraid of more cuts to Permanent Fund Dividends from what they would be under the Dividend formula created in the 1980s. That person could be lower-income and happy about how Dividends help pay the bills.

The fourth person with handguns out is someone most afraid of increased taxes on the oil industry. Think of an oil company executive—or maybe an oilfield worker—here.   

And the fifth person pointing guns at the others is someone most concerned about the Legislature overdrawing from the Permanent Fund earnings so that there is less money to pay for what the State of Alaska’s government does in the future.  This person probably plans to live in Alaska a long time and counts on there being good roads and public safety in 2041 as well as in 2021.   

So if it seems like Alaska’s fiscal politics are unusually paralyzed, all those gun-pointers in the cockpit help explain why. 

The reason that the cockpit standoff wasn’t a problem before the last seven years or so is that the plane used giant wads of oil money for fuel without much need for choices among the diverse collection of passengers.  For about 35 years—starting around 1980—the State of Alaska essentially paid the bills with the big annual revenues from oil taxes and oil royalties. But that system stopped working due to the combination of declines in Alaska oil production, drops in world oil prices, and a new oil tax system.  Unless oil prices shoot up—and, crucially, stay up—well above recent highs, that old world of oil money financing the State of Alaska is not coming back.   

The State of Alaska has responded to the dramatic fall in oil revenues since 2014 by spending most of its savings outside the Permanent Fund as well as by cutting spending to a level below that seen in the 1970s after adjusting for population growth and inflation. (The calculations in this piece are based on Unrestricted General Fund (UGF) dollars, the most common definition of the budget in Alaska.) 

I have set out in detail elsewhere my comprehensive proposal for fixing our state’s structural deficit. Briefly, I favor amending the Alaska Constitution to include the POMV system and guarantee the Dividend at a sustainable level; the reinstatement of broad-based taxes focusing on higher-income Alaska residents and non-residents (which means that I prefer the personal income tax over a statewide general sales tax); a moderate increase in taxes on the oil industry; and a continued emphasis on searching for efficiencies in the budget (while recognizing that the budget might need to go up in certain areas, such as the capital budget). 

Your opinions may differ, and I am always willing to discuss potential solutions with Alaskans. Getting to an agreement on a long-term fiscal fix is tough in Alaska, mostly for the reasons laid out above.  What is completely unacceptable, however, is going with no or little action over and over. Folks, let’s put down the guns, go big and get creative, and land this aircraft safely. 


Cliff Groh has studied Alaska’s fiscal system over the past four decades, and his work has included service as the legislative assistant who worked by far the most to develop and get passed in 1982 the bill that created the Permanent Fund Dividend. He plans to go to Juneau for the next special session on the big-picture fiscal issues.

To Protect the Dividend and Revive Alaska’s Economy, Consider Taxes

Anchorage Daily News, May 2, 2021 – Opinion by ACG board member Janet McCabe

Mouhcine Guettabi, an economist with the Institute for Social and Economic Research, has warned that uncertainty about Alaska’s fiscal future has a cost of its own. The resulting caution among prudent investors discourages productive development and economic growth.

Now it appears that many Alaskans are leaving the state for greener pastures. Under normal conditions, populations grow, but during the past four years, Alaska’s population has declined.

Our legislators’ current push to fund the education budget and avoid pink slips for teachers highlights their recognition of the economic cost of uncertainty. Good for them!

Legislative action — or inaction — can have an inordinate impact on Alaska’s fiscal future, as it did on May 8, 2018, when legislators adopted Senate Bill 26, Alaska’s Percent of Market Value, or POMV, endowment system. Then they pulled together to put annual draws from the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve Account on a sustainable basis — just in time to replace steep declines in petroleum revenue.

This year, POMV yielded $3.7 billion, or about 70% of the state’s spendable revenue. It is expected to produce a similar stream of revenue in the future — provided the spending limits of the law are followed.

People often have trouble understanding how important it is to avoid POMV overdraw. Jennifer Johnston, former state representative, put it well. She said POMV turned the Permanent Fund into “a perpetual self-licking ice cream cone.” Overspending makes the ice cream cone melt and eventually disappear. Conversely, by putting more money into the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve, the Legislature can make the ice cream cone grow.

This year, the Legislature may be able to resolve the difficult issue of “the split” of POMV earnings, i.e., the percentages for state services and for dividends. In her recent commentary, Sen. Natasha von Imhof proposed a different approach that would pay the dividend from a source outside of POMV “using 100% of the oil royalties deposited into the Permanent Fund each year.” She commented, “This is something the state can afford over time and is truly the fair share calculation.” Her concept could solve the issue.

But, even if the entire amount of POMV revenue is available for state services, the Legislature will need other resources to pull the economy out of the current recession.

Fortunately for the short run, Alaska has received a flood of federal money this year with more to come in 2022. Tim Bradner’s recent commentary did a good job of describing the inflow from Washington, D.C. — about $5 billion last year through the CARES Act and this year, probably another $3 billion, plus more if President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill is adopted. So now federal money is alleviating personal hardship and briefly stimulating the economy in the same way as the state dividend.

Also encouraging is support by Gov. Mike Dunleavy and legislators on both sides of the aisle for state bonding for infrastructure projects. Improvements to the ferry system, roads, airports, bridges, and the like would address deferred maintenance and a backlog of needed capital improvements throughout Alaska.

In the process, new jobs would be created and Alaska’s economy reinvigorated. Optimally, projects that have been identified and designed by the state would be “shovel-ready” when and if President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan passes.

But, for a lasting solution to Alaska’s fiscal crisis, and for long-term economic stability and prosperity, we must consider taxes.

Today’s Legislature is facing fiscal deficits that have been intensifying for at least nine years. All available sources for discretionary spending have been drained. Alaska’s rainy-day fund, the Constitutional Budget Reserve, or CBR, that maintains the state’s ability to adjust and respond to emergency situations, is owed about $12.9 billion.

State services have already been cut to bare bone.

As a source of additional revenue, a state sales tax has been given the most consideration. But a statewide sales tax would be particularly hard on rural Alaskans where prices are high, and cash is scarce. It would be on top of municipal sales taxes in many locations.

By standards of fairness, the clear winner is a progressive income tax, like the one that supported our state in the early days. Only those who can well afford to pay would be taxed. Taxing income earned in Alaska by outside residents is also fair. Alaska residents pay taxes to other states where they earn income, but currently, this is a one-way street.

Legislators have repeatedly considered taxation as a source of ongoing revenue. In the meantime, the fiscal crisis intensifies. A tax law enacted this year will take a year and a half to produce revenue.

By buckling down and truly collaborating, the 32nd Alaska State Legislature could take steps that will pull us out of our current recession and launch Alaska on a stable and prosperous fiscal future.

Janet McCabe has been following Alaska’s fiscal issues since she and her husband, David, came to Alaska in 1964. She is a member of Alaska Common Ground and Commonwealth North.

Letter to Legislators 3-3-21

Letter to Senators 3-3-21

March 3, 2021

The Honorable Senator
Alaska State Capitol
Juneau, AK 99801-1182

Dear Senator:

Alaska Common Ground is a non-partisan 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with a substantial and growing statewide membership. We have held dozens of events discussing Alaska’s fiscal policy over the past three decades which have attracted thousands of attendees. We are sending you this letter to emphasize the concerns they have shared with us that are described in the attached documents.

It is crucial that our legislators work together to develop solutions that address the current fiscal crisis.

First it is critical to Alaska’s fiscal future that the Permanent Fund be protected from overspending that prevents the growth necessary to increase yields that can support our future needs.

We also cannot emphasize enough the need to provide the necessary funding for constitutionally required public services including education, public health, and public safety.

The Legislature must adopt new revenue sources, including a graduated income tax.  This is critical to closing the budget deficit.

This legislative session is the time to forge a solution to this crisis.  Each year of delay makes an already pressing problem worse and discourages investment in our state.

Dick Mylius, Chair
On behalf of the Alaska Common Ground Board of Directors

1) 12-page graphic guide to Alaska’s fiscal crisis
2) Two-page analysis of Alaska’s fiscal future prepared by Alaska Common Ground in August 2020.