OPINION: Don't tell us what we want to hear
March 18th, 2016 | Carey Restino
After months of furrowed-brow discussions and complicated economic lessons, the first indications of what our state's elected officials plan to do about our gaping fiscal gap hit the news this week. What they plan to do, as far as the observer can see, is not much different than they have done in past years — make some minor cuts and take a big draw from our savings account. They say we have to cut our government more before any talk of real solutions should be started. It's a nice sound bite — attractive to those who want to keep more of the pie for themselves. But in reality, it's pure fiction. Our state's economy is built on dependence on oil revenue. Those revenues are dwindling faster than our snowpack. Something has to replace that money. Somebody has to pay for police cars, snowplows, fire trucks and schools. That somebody probably should be the people who use those services.
The current debate reminds me distinctly of ones I have with my children from time to time. They want a cookie from the coffee shop, but they don't want to pay for it. They get an allowance for doing chores, but they don't want to use that if they don't have to. It's understandable - they are children. They have yet to grasp that somebody has to pay for the things they want if they don't pay for it.
Alaskans seem to be caught in the same fantasy. They want someone to tell them that they can have everything they want — plowed roads, good schools, safe communities — without having to shoulder the cost. In a way, it's understandable, too. We have gone a long time without having to pay for anything. My entire adult life, I have never paid out of my own pocket for state services — not a single dime to cover what has likely been hundreds of thousands of dollars in state services. So why would I want to start paying for them now if there is someone willing to say I don't have to? We are, in a nutshell, selfish.
Unfortunately, that selfishness is going to be our demise, and here's why. I've seen first-hand the impact that scraping bottom has on your budget. You get behind. Your credit rating goes in the tank. You scrimp and try to cut corners, but then your car starts to fall apart and you can't get to your job because it won't start. It's a snowball effect that many of us can relate to, and digging yourself out of that pit is not easy. It takes years to rebuild credit, acquire the things you put off when times were tight, and begin to start saving for a more stable future.
Now imagine that on a statewide level — what kind of impact will hitting bottom ungracefully have on our state. How many decades will it take to rebuild, to stabilize our economy so that businesses will want to invest here again, so that we can be seen as prosperous and responsible? For those of us truly invested in this state, it's not looking too good.
There's a parallel to be made between what is playing out on a national front right now and what is happening in Alaska. There is a tremendous movement afoot that appears to be based largely on selfishness, on a desire to get more for ourselves and follow anyone who says they can make that happen. Unfortunately, that greediness is blind to the fact that we live in a society in which we are very much dependent on one another, and on our government functioning properly. It's just that it all happens out of sight so we forget all the ways we need one and other. And when someone comes along who tells us what we want to believe, that we can have the cookie and not have to pay for it, we rally behind them.
In Alaska, however, it's crystal clear that our state is at a turning point. We have to grow up and face the fact that it is time to start paying our way. Like most Alaskans, I signed up for my Permanent Fund Dividend this year. It will probably all go to paying my federal taxes, ironically. But I would have been happy to let it go if it meant that we weren't going to nosedive into a fiscal crisis.
I'm not alone, either. There are plenty of Alaskans who desperately want our legislators to at least try to move forward before we crash — to at least begin dealing with how we are going to pay for things in the next five or 10 years rather than waiting until there is nothing left to soften that blow. It is time for our state legislators to be the responsible stewards of the state they were elected to be, gather together, and tell those who want something for nothing, who want state services without paying for them, that those days are over.