Kodiak Senator Gary Stevens is gearing up for his 16th legislative session in Juneau, which starts in about three weeks. He says he has been talking to constituents quite a bit, mostly about how the state can start balancing its budget in the face of its $3.5-billion financial shortfall.
“Is there that much waste in government? Maybe there is. If there is, let me know. Tell me what you want cut from what we’re already doing," Stevens said. "And if that’s not the case, then how are we going to continue to do the things we want to do and in fact, do you want to do them. Do you want police protection, do you want schools, you know.”
One place cuts have been proposed by a railbelt legislator is to raise the threshold for keeping village schools open from 10 to 25 students. Stevens is not a fan, and says the savings really wouldn’t add up to much compared to the size of the budget deficit.
“What they really fail to realize is that if you cut those schools out, you reduce those schools, if you get rid of those schools, those kids are still there. The kids still have to be educated. According to the constitution we have a responsibility to educate every child in Alaska. And so if you don’t have a school in some of these villages, what are you going to do with those kids? How are you going to give them an education?" Stevens said "The idea giving them a computer – I don’t think that works, you know. If you can’t learn in front of a teacher, how are you going to learn in front of a screen, you know. It seems to me that it’s a little short-sighted. In the end it saves about $20-million. I think there are other places we can get $20-million out of and keep education in the villages.”
Among Governor Walker’s revenue-generating ideas is to use the excess earnings from the Permanent Fund corpus investments to help fund government. It would reduce the size of the PFD check to about $1,000 per year. Stevens harkened back to another plan a different governor floated over 10 years ago that didn’t get the needed traction in the legislature:
“Actually I think Murkowski, Governor Murkowski, had a really good plan. It’s called POMV, Percent of Market Value. So 5 percent, his plan was to take 5 percent out of the fund, spend 5 percent every year, and at that time we were earning 8 to 10 percent every year, and so it would keep the fund growing, but it also allow monies to be used to run government,” Stevens said.
However, Stevens believes that changing the way Permanent Fund corpus earnings are used, or an income tax, a sales tax or other controversial revenue-generating idea will likely not pass this session.
“Now I can tell you it’s my belief that none of that will pass this legislature. And I can tell you why: It’s because everyone is running in the House for office in August and they are not about to vote for an income tax and go home and run for office in August. They’re not going to do that. And I’ve seen that happen year after year after," Stevens said. "So from that standpoint, you know, this will be my 16th year, I’ve loved it, it’s been a wonderful experience, and if I get thrown out of office for doing what I think is the right thing, I have to say, ‘Hey, okay, let someone else figure it out.’ Because whoever happens to be in the legislature is going to face the same problem: not enough money, and too many things the state, the public wants us to do.”
Stevens confirmed that he will be seeing another term in the state senate next year. He also predicted at least one special session after the regular 90-day legislative session is complete. The Alaska Legislature will convene on January 16th.