Saturday, April 6, 2013

Short Takes| The News-Miner goes off track a bit ...

An editorial in the Fairbanks News-Miner today -- "Finish the job: Engineering buildings need complete funding" -- goes off track a bit.  Normally the News-Miner editorial column is strong on fiscal reform, pointing out the need for serious cuts in spending in order to sustain Alaska's future (see "Alaska Fiscal Policy| The Fairbanks News-Miner Gets It," Thoughts on Alaska Oil & Gas (Jan. 7, 2013)).

This morning, however, the column somewhat falls prey to a common Alaska affliction -- arguing on the one hand for spending restraints, but then on the other for the Legislature to fund just this one project.  In the News-Miner's view, "[t]he Legislature is trying mightily to keep the 2013 capital budget under control, which is a laudable goal, but it would be a shame if the engineering buildings at our two university campuses failed to receive a second year of funding this year."  The column then goes on to argue that the Legislature should find a way to provide the money.

As these pages have made clear throughout, the total, all-in budget for the unrestricted general fund this year should be $5.5 billion.  See "A Serious Wake-Up Call from ISER: “In fiscal year 2014, Alaska’s state government can afford to spend about $5.5 billion," Thoughts on Alaska Oil & Gas (Jan. 3, 2013).  Spending more shifts the resulting fiscal burden -- in simple terms, essentially imposes a tax -- on future generations.

There should be a rule -- and I urge it on the News-Miner going forward -- that anyone proposing to spend an additional dollar (in my view, above $5.5 billion) should identify at the same time an equal amount of spending to be cut.

Its not that the capital budget announced this week isn't a target rich environment for that sort of thing.   In two different line items, for example, the current bill proposes to spend $2.1 million on "Service High School Field Turf and Stadium Amenities," and another $.8 million on "Service High School Track Improvements and Stadium Amenities" (p, 98, lns 18-29).

That's fine, I suppose, but as a state do we really think its appropriate to reduce money that future generations need saved now to pay for basic teacher salaries going forward, so that the current generation can have four games a year on an astroturfed football field?  And even if we think spending that amount of money is appropriate, is it more important than spending it on completing needed Engineering Buildings on at least one of the state's two major college campuses?

It might take some work, but even this year's proposed budget is sufficiently full of fluff that over the course of a day it would be fairly easy to identify an offsetting amount of savings in order to make room for what the News-Miner, at least, believes are higher priority items.

In my view, those who understand the state's coming fiscal crisis -- including the editorial column of the News-Miner -- have a continuing responsibility to do something about it.   If they (we) want to argue for state spending on this project or that, we should have at it.  But we should be responsible, and ourselves help make the hard choices that we argue the Governor and Legislature should be making by identifying specifically an equal amount that should be cut.

Want to spend a penny above the sustainable level -- even on something as laudable as education -- then identify where the offsetting savings can be made.  Otherwise, forfeit your turn to ask for more spending.