OPINION: State workers, agencies in limbo
June 9th | Carey Restino
Across the state, more than 15,000 people and their families are in economic limbo right now. In three weeks, they could all be out of a job, with no idea when work will start again. And that number is a lot higher, really, because it doesn't include University of Alaska employees, or teachers, who aren't technically state employees, but whose jobs are directly impacted by state funding for education. Add those folks in and the number rises above 18,000 people. That's more than 5.5 percent of the total workforce in Alaska facing financial uncertainty. And all because legislators are simply not doing the one job they are hired to do — balance the budget.
While some of those workers may be in a financial position to ride the wave by using savings, getting part-time work that is so prevalent in the state right now, or cutting their expenses for a few weeks, others are surely wondering what they should do. Should they wait it out in hopes that the budget that lawmakers eventually approve is favorable on their department? Should they take this as a sign that the Alaska economic crunch is finally hitting and get out? For those with the most work history and experience, these pink slips may be the tipping point that inspires them to start sending out their resume to other states — states which have figured out that they have to pay for the services their state provides.
Here's an interesting thought to consider — these people holding pink slips right now make up close to the same amount of workers the state of Alaska predicts will lose their jobs overall in the unfolding recession. So by not finding a way to balance the budget, the state lawmakers are actually creating the very economic instability they are trying to avoid with all the haggling over what to cut and what to tax. As the saying goes, if you aren't part of the solution, you are part of the problem, and in this case, the state's legislators are absolutely part of the problem.
Chances are good Alaska's legislators don't see it that way — they each have opinions about what is best for the state. But while they bicker about the details of how to pay for government, Alaska is left hanging. This economic limbo has a reverberating impact all over the state. The lack of unified vision and purpose in Juneau is certainly enough to discourage investment in the state, both on a large and small scale. Uncertainty from our leadership about what way to proceed has worn away at the credibility of everything from oil and gas development to our state's own credit rating, in simple terms.
Perhaps some in Juneau see the new interest in Arctic offshore drilling as reason to hold off on any sort of comprehensive plan for paying the bills with new income sources, such as a state income tax. But here's the rub — offshore drilling doesn't mean money for Alaska, at least not on the scale that we've seen from the North Slope, anyway. Oil drilled in federal waters goes to the federal government, not the state. So, while a few folks might get jobs, it certainly won't be the boom we're looking for that will save us from finding an income source. And that's even assuming the offshore drilling attracted any investors — hit the rewind button a few years and you'll recall that offshore drilling wasn't wildly popular, given the changes in technology that make oil prospects in the Lower 48 much more attractive then the huge investment it takes to develop resources to production levels in Alaska's arctic waters.
Chances are pretty good nothing is going to save us from dealing with how to pay for state government, and all the haggling in the world isn't going to change that. Alaska's legislators have a choice — stick their fingers in their ears and continue to fight over how to move forward as a state or find some real solutions, which must include some new funding, likely through taxes of some sort like every other state in the nation does.
The worst thing Juneau can do right now is drag its feet, however, because that will only exacerbate a bad situation and cause thousands and thousands of Alaskans to struggle unnecessarily. Such foot-dragging could cause us to lose some very valuable employees at a time when attracting new ones to the Last Frontier might not be so easy. Alaska's lawmakers need to bite the bullet, reach a compromise that pays for state services, and allow the state to move forward.