Commentary: Lawmakers must stop demanding, start compromising

A statue of William Henry Seward in front of the Alaska State Capitol. (May 13, 2019) Photo courtesy of Paxson Woelber/The Alaska Landmine

By Larry Persily
For The Cordova Times

Just over 20 years ago, half of the Alaska House of Representatives banded together — Democrats and Republicans, urban and rural — in a concerted push to balance the budget, raise new revenues and put the state on a path to a long-term, fiscally responsible future.

They called themselves the Fiscal Policy Caucus, and even wore lapel pins of an open umbrella to signify that the rainy day had arrived and Alaskans needed to protect themselves from falling oil revenues.

They studied the math, debated the issues, held public meetings across the state, and agreed to a plan that raised new revenues, protected the dividend and used a portion of Permanent Fund earnings to pay for public services — yes, the same unresolved fights still before legislators today.

The members were divided between sales tax and income tax advocates and, of course, no-tax advocates, along with supporters of higher oil taxes, promoters of big dividends and those who wanted to scale back the annual payments to Alaskans. There were budget cutters and budget spenders in the room.

But they all agreed on one thing: The state was running out of time to kick the piggybank down the road, hoping something would spill out to pay the bills. After several organizing meetings, they pledged that while members could argue for their cause, grumble and gripe, groan and grimace, in the end everyone in the room would support the overall plan, even if they did not like all of the pieces.

They came out of their meetings unified. It was a class in civics and public policy. Compromise, not demands. Trading ideas, not political hostages.

Yet, despite their hard work and political courage, House and Senate leadership patted the children on the head and said don’t bother us, and certainly don’t call us and we won’t call you. The leaders said the plan was politically unpopular, the complacent Senate wasn’t interested in making decisions, and besides, there’s always next year.

And now, 20 years later, the state is still knee-deep in the mushy muskeg of a well-traveled political trail that should have been rebuilt long ago. Too many leaders, including Gov. Mike Dunleavy, took every fork in the fiscal trail but the right one, and never laid down enough planks to improve the trail.

This isn’t a matter of misreading the signs, it’s about only seeing the signs of the next election.

And yet, 20 years later, instead of compromise we see too many strident legislators — and the governor — each issue their lists of demands about bigger dividends, no taxes, far-reaching constitutional amendments, spending limits, seats at the table, chairs on the dance floor.

If this month’s special session of the Legislature is going to accomplish anything, if next year’s legislative session is going to accomplish anything, if whoever wins the 2022 race for governor is going to provide leadership instead of brinksmanship, more of Alaska’s elected leaders need to study up on compromise and accept that what’s best for the state may not be precisely what they want.

Better to stand under the umbrella than to get soaked in the rain because you’re too stubborn to share.

Larry Persily is owner and editor of the weekly Wrangell Sentinel newspaper.