A newly formed special legislative committee is taking the first steps toward finding long-term fiscal stability for the state. The House Fiscal Policy Committee is ready to hire a consultant specializing in communications to strengthen the public’s trust and understanding of the state budget.
The special House committee is the offshoot of a Fiscal Policy Working group created by Kodiak’s Alan Austerman, now House Majority Leader. It met for nearly two years, studying why previous attempts to reform the state’s fiscal structure have failed. The group ended during this year’s session with less than one page of recommendations, and Special Committee Chair Anna Fairclough – a Republican from Eagle River – says they determined that a knowledgeable public is key to any solution. And that’s where the communications consultant comes into the picture. Fairclough says people need to see Alaska’s future without oil money.
“I think we have a win if the general public understands that a gas pipeline, use of the Permanent Fund dividend, and a sales tax or an income tax, will not meet what we’re currently receiving in oil production. That’s what scares me as an Alaskan – it’s wonderful that we’ve had this history, but if we don’t take a significant look at where we are today, how can we plan for where we’re going to be tomorrow,” Fairclough said.
Fairclough says the answers can best be found outside the capitol, where communities have already determined their own priorities. She says that’s the message that needs to be brought back to the legislature – not as a partisan solution. The consultant the committee will hire will devise a way to make financial presentations throughout the state, and for giving the public a basic foundation in how government is paid for. From that, she says, the goal is to build a consensus among a very broad spectrum of politics and philosophy.
“We can work together and we can figure out what the next best step is should Alaska see a downturn in income. But we can’t throw stones at each other when people bring genuine ideas or concerns to the table,” Fairclough said.
The Task Force that set the direction of the committee was made up of people from the private and public sectors. And it didn’t have any partisan stand. Anchorage Democrat Mike Doogan was on it. He says it became apparent that the public must be a part of the discussion of the state’s finances. He says the state now has about $15 billion it could spend. And everyone in the legislature has an idea on how to use some of it.
“Before we do any of that, it seems to me we should have some sort of idea what we’re trying to do overall. And before we do that, it seems to me that we have to invite the general public into some sort of discussion about that. Because if we don’t, what’s going to happen is the legislature will pick the three ideas with the most votes and the money will be gone,” Doogan said.
The consultant who will devise a communications plan will be chosen within the month. The direct education process will begin after next year’s session.
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