‘A hidden giant’: Alaska Legislature’s nonpartisan voice on the state budget is retiring

Legislative Finance Director David Teal speaks during a House Finance Committee meeting in the Alaska State Capitol on Feb. 27, 2018. Teal is retiring in December after 22 years in his position. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

For two decades, as oil prices and Alaska’s budget gap rose and fell, state lawmakers could rely on one constant: the mild-mannered David Teal.

As the Alaska Legislature’s chief budget analyst, Teal has been the go-to source for nonpartisan information on state spending and revenues. That will end next month when Teal retires. And budget experts say Teal’s work will be missed.

His office’s job is to provide lawmakers with facts, minus the partisan spin.

“You don’t give them recommendations,” Teal said. “You give them options, and the pros and cons of the various options. And they choose. You don’t try to influence the choice.”

Teal started in the job in 1997. And since then, he’s kept to a nonpartisan approach in a state government that’s often divided by party.

“We’re trying to help the Legislature have the process — the legislative process, the budget process — be as smooth as possible, get as much information as possible, without pushing any agenda,” he said.

So Teal has always kept his comments to describing the facts as he sees them.

“All we say is, ‘When you have a deficit, you burn through reserves. And you can’t do that forever,’” he said.

Teal will spell out the consequences of cuts. For example, his office developed a chart that got a lot of attention this year. It showed that if the state pays out $3,000 permanent fund dividends, it would have to eliminate all state funding for most departments of state government to close the gap between what the state spends and what it brings in.

“If you want to balance the budget without cutting education, dividends and Medicaid, you have to cut everything else,” he said. “And I think information like that’s pretty powerful.”

Bar graph comparing the spending gap to spending on state agencies.
Comparing the spending gap to spending on state agencies. (Graphic by David Purdy/KTOO. Source: Alaska Division of Legislative Finance)

While Teal is careful not to take sides in policy debates, he recalls his office laying out the potential consequences of steep increases in state spending when oil prices have risen. So the budget crisis that followed the oil price crash five years ago hasn’t been a shock to Teal.

“I mean, all of this stuff was foreseeable to anyone who’s really followed the budgets over the years,” he said.

Teal’s approach has earned him respect from lawmakers who’ve worked with him.

Former Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, said he’s thankful for Teal’s service. Parnell worked with Teal when Parnell served as co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee early in Teal’s time as director.

“I just found him to be smart, professional, understood what his job was and he did a good job of balancing it,” Parnell said. “Because, in that role, you get competing demands from both parties.”

Budget observers said it will be tough to replace Teal.

Rebecca Braun covered the state budget process as the editor and publisher of the Alaska Budget Report. She later was policy director for former independent Gov. Bill Walker.

Braun credited the Legislative Finance Division under Teal with building a consensus over what the facts are with the budget. Braun said that set Alaska apart from similar debates at the federal level. It allowed lawmakers to concentrate on policy, rather than argue over the facts.

“I think he’s one of these people who’s like a hidden giant, who has so much to do with what goes on, and people just don’t see it,” Braun said. “Not just in budgeting, but really in legislators’ and ultimately, I think, the public’s ability to understand the way the state uses its money — where our money comes from and where our money goes.”

Braun said she’s worried for years about who would replace Teal when he retires.

“Hopefully there’s somebody who’s not just competent, but who’s also able to have that temperament, where they can really instill trust in so many people,” Braun said.

As for Teal, he said he’ll miss being part of the upcoming session. But he predicts it will be difficult, as lawmakers again debate the size of the permanent fund dividend.

Teal said many lawmakers see a competition for the money that’s available to the state, between state programs and dividends. But he said recognizing that doesn’t make it easy to fix.

“But I’m convinced the law will change,” Teal said. “If not this year, then next year or the year after that.”

So the analyst who’s refrained from offering recommendations for more than 20 years is leaving office making comments that sound a lot like one.

“Cuts are harder and harder to find,” Teal said. “They need to balance the budget sooner rather than later.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy will be releasing his next budget proposal by Dec. 15.