Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A blast from the past explains some of the present ...

Recently for another purpose, we were paging back through our primary blog to identify when it was we started voicing concerns about the state's fiscal situation. (The answer is May 2011.)

Along the way, however, we ran across a piece from July 2012 that answered in one fell swoop something that has puzzled us for the last couple of years as the Alaska Senate R's increasingly have gone off the deep end by first, two sessions ago, passing a bill permanently to tax statutory income from the PFD (what some euphemistically refer to as "cut" the PFD) at more than 50% and then, last session, not only doing that again but essentially giving up on cutting government spending further and cutting the PFD instead.

The piece discusses what then was a new (in 2012) -- and apparently still available -- website sponsored by the so-called "House Special Committee on Fiscal Policy." According to the Chair of the Special Committee, the website was designed to help Alaskans prepare "to handle the challenges [of declining oil revenues] before we reach a crisis.”

What has puzzled us is why the Alaska Senate R's this last session seemed to run out of steam in their efforts further to cut the budget down to long term sustainable levels. We also have puzzled over the statement we have heard some make occasionally that deeper cuts in government spending would worsen the state's recession.

Then we ran across the following quote from the House website contained in the article. When reading this keep in mind that this was written while the R's controlled the House.  Keep in mind also that the Chair of the Special Committee was then-Rep. Anna Fairclough (now, MacKinnon).  MacKinnon is now
Senator MacKinnon and Co-Chair of the Finance Committee.

The quote is from a tab entitled "Why not just cut the budget" as a response to the, even then, painfully apparent coming fiscal crisis (we have added emphasis to parts that we think provide significant insight into the actions of the current Senate R's):
Why not just cut the budget? 
Alaska’s operating budget has been increasing at about 9% per year for the last decade and is expected to continue on this path. Even with tighter budget control, the budget will need to increase as population increases and to adjust for inflation just to maintain current levels of service. Increases in future obligations due to an aging population are a part of fiscal gap calculations and one reason why Alaska is not alone in facing future budget woes. 
While deep cuts to state services could help the plug the fiscal gap, they would hurt the economy and Alaska families. State government not only provides needed services and infrastructure, it also plays a significant role in the state’s economy, directly employing around 7% of working Alaskans (24,000 people in 2011) and generating even more jobs by providing grants and contracts to the non-profit and private sectors and by being a major purchaser of goods and services from Alaska businesses. Without state funding some of those jobs will disappear.

Often when people talk about cutting government spending they mean cutting out excess bureaucracy and paring back non-essential services. It will be important to find efficiencies and look for ways to trim waste, but there is a limit to what can be cut without cutting into basic services that many Alaskans rely on. Administration only accounts for 4% of the state operating budget. While there may be efficiencies that can be found, administration cannot be gutted since it includes core services like IT and telecommunications services, accounting and payroll that state agencies need to operate. 
In past years, the state has cut the capital budget when short-term deficits have occurred in years of low oil prices. Cutting the capital budget provides immediate savings but is a short-term fix that has its own negative impacts, such as higher future costs due to deferred maintenance on public buildings. Cuts to the capital budget also impact general contractors, engineers, and people working in the trades throughout Alaska who contract with the state to plan and build infrastructure projects. Maintaining public infrastructure, including roads, bridges, ferries and public health clinics is a core function of government that no one else is going to pay for if the state doesn’t do it. 
Budget cuts impact people differently. Cuts to education impact children and families, while cuts to the capital budget impact the Alaskans in the construction industry, and cuts to health and human services impact people with fewer resources. In one way or another, state spending improves the quality of life for all Alaskan. We are used to receiving high levels of service from our government. In a recent statewide telephone survey, Alaskans from all political parties chose maintaining state services over balancing the budget for nearly all state services.
As we went on in our 2012 post to discuss at length, the emphasis on maintaining jobs and a government role in the economy was troublesome.  As we said then in our commentary,
... the focus on the role of “government” as a source of jobs ... is something that one would ordinarily expect to hear from the far-left wing of the Democrat party, not a committee composed primarily of Alaska Republican House members. What happened to the usual — and economically sound — principle that government should leave the role of job creation — and more importantly, picking economic winners and losers — to the private sector, and limit taxes in order to permit the private sector to create those jobs and make those choices? This rhetoric sounds much more like that which justified the federal government’s recent economic stimulus packages than anything normally associated with “fiscal conservatives.”
 As we have entered an era where the Senate R's have now voted to cut the PFD rather than spending further, that philosophy is even more troublesome.

While solving one puzzle, however, finding the Senate R's past rationalization for their current actions creates another. 

If the "Special Committee" then -- and the Senate R's now -- are so concerned about the effect of their actions on "the economy and Alaska families," why is it they have chosen to tax (what some euphemistically refer to as "cut") the PFD as their primary means of keeping elevated government spending levels in place.


As ISER's undisputed economic analysis has made clear, taxing/cutting the PFD:
  • “Has the largest adverse impact on the economy [of all the new revenue options] per dollar of revenues raised,” https://goo.gl/ZxR1Hw at A-15;
  • “[W]ill likely increase the number of Alaskans below the poverty line by 12–15,000 (2% of Alaskans),” https://goo.gl/iuTjv2 at 14.
In short, in order to avoid making "deep cuts to state services" because they "would hurt the economy and Alaska families," the Senate R's have chosen to implement the very option that ... hurts the economy ("has the largest adverse impact") and Alaska families ("by far the costliest measure for Alaska families") the most.

What the heck?

The portion of the website we covered in our 2012 commentary doesn't provide an insight into solving that puzzle. But when we have the time we will keep digging in the remainder to see if it provides any clues.

We doubt, as we have suggested elsewhere is the likely case, that we will find any smoking guns that say, "we have chosen to cut the PFD in order to protect the Top  20% from paying any significant share of the cost," but you never can tell.