Web posted Thursday, April 4, 2002

Legislature needs to look inward

Alaskans have received quite a bit from their government over the years, especially since oil began flowing through the pipeline. We pay no personal state income tax. We enjoy some of the lowest taxes in the United States on gasoline, and only middling taxes on alcohol, given the mind-boggling expense that alcohol abuse creates in the state. The oil industry pays lower taxes than it pays in most regions of the world. At the same time every Alaskan gets a check just for living here.

The equation is changing, however. The House of Representatives has again proposed cutting the current operating budget to pare back state trooper services, public health, state parks, environmental controls, even those elements of state government that are needed to raise more money by putting on timber sales and fisheries management.

And the Legislature has warned Alaskans to expect new taxes, plus reduced permanent fund dividend checks as part of the new Alaska.

Many Alaskans are ready to pay more to live here, others are willing to accept fewer services, but everyone is having to change.

The Legislature should be no exception. It's time our elected representatives turn their budget knives and time management skills on themselves. Here are some things we believe should be on the table in Juneau:

* Shorter legislative session <> Reducing the session from 120 days to 90 or 75 won't free up millions of dollars, but it would force the body to use its time better. Not that there aren't plenty of good issues to discuss, but if Alaskans can get by with fewer troopers and public health nurses and teachers, the Legislature can survive with a 25 percent cut in Juneau time.

* Unicameral legislature <> A few states have gotten rid of their bicameral legislatures, and it's an idea worth pursuing in Alaska. Having a single body rather than a separate House of Representatives and Senate would eliminate the need for two committees on the same subject, two sets of hearings on most issues, and two bills having to be reconciled in conference committee. Democracy is not supposed to be quick and clean, but unicameral legislatures elsewhere in the democratic world seem to be functioning quite well.

* Two-year budget <> As Alaska's income stream smooths out through broader-based taxes and an annual contribution of cash from the permanent fund, it would seem the Legislature could get by with passing a budget every other year. School districts, biologists and road maintenance crews would love to know a year ahead of time what their budget was. Unforeseen expenses would pop up, just as they do now, and would be handled the same way, through interim budget adjustments.

The Alaska Legislature should work efficiently and effectively at the business of running this great state, but sadly it has not. It has given us federal management of subsistence, blocked efforts to tax ourselves at realistic levels, fueled divisiveness through the urban-rural divide <> the list goes on and on. It's time for the Legislature to clean up its act.