Time to Reflect – and to Rise!

Dr. Lisa Skiles Parady

As we move towards mid-winter and the holidays, it is a time to reflect on the past year and the challenges before us as we turn the calendar.

Any reasonable assessment of the past three years in Juneau would conclude that the inaction and inability to compromise has put public education at serious risk.  From failing to raise revenue to sweeping away forward funding to the pretense of transforming education, not much has been accomplished.

Which leads us to the regular legislative session coming in January of 2018, which will be played out against the backdrop of the statewide election to be held on November 6, 2018.

The influence of these races on legislative action will intensify as we move towards next fall.  Current members thought to be interested in the Gov/Lt. Gov seats include Reps Mike Chenault, and Senators Gary Stevens, Kevin Meyer, Anna MacKinnon and Peter Micciche.  Senator Mike Dunleavy suspended his campaign but may get back in.

And of course former legislators like Charlie Huggins (former Senate President) and Lynn Gattis (former Rep) have declared, as have Governor Walker and Lt. Governor Mallot.  Others on most people’s speculative laundry list include Mark Begich, Loren Leman, John Binkley, Scott Hawkins, Bob Gillam, Joe Miller, Dan Sullivan…the list is long.

Before offering my opinion, please note that it is early and like you, I am just trying to understand where we are at this stage.  Typically, legislators in statewide races are burdened by their voting history, whereas newcomers are not.  The list of potential candidates is long, but will weed itself out as we move towards hard deadlines and funding realities.

That said, the impact as they jockey for position will be profound.  Of course, they can rise above the fray and do what is best for Alaska over the long term.  But that is not how political calculus generally works.  There are those who will not want to cede anything positive to the Governor.  There are those who will want to punt tough economic decisions.  And others who will want to grandstand on peripheral issues.  Few want to do what needs to be done – long term sustainable fiscal plan that includes new revenue.  Let’s encourage them to move this direction every chance we get.

Let’s turn now to the current special session, the 4th one this year.  As I write this we are over 190 days of session time (most in history!).  As a refresher, it only took the framers 75 days to write Alaska’s Constitution!

The most likely outcome of the special session is passage of amendments to SB91 (the Omnibus Crime Bill) in the form of SB54 (Crime and Sentencing), which has received multiple amendments and fiscal notes.  It is highly unlikely that there will be action on the revenue proposals of the Governor.

Assuming that proves to be true, we will then begin the next regular session in a similar place as we did in each of the past three years – without consensus on a path forward and substantial sentiment against revenue measures.

What remains the most likely path to dealing with the state’s fiscal crisis is a compromise regarding the Permanent Fund earnings reserve account, which currently holds about $12.8B.  Both the House and Senate have passed bills regarding this account, albeit with differing levels for the PFD going forward and other technical differences.  Other reserves, both statutory and the Constitutional Budget Reserve (CBR) are down to a little over $2B and will be depleted within the next 12-18 months.

So, the plain truth is that the fiscal crisis is going to consume all of the Legislature’s available capacity for the next year.  We as the professional voice of public education need to remain focused on fiscal solutions that sustain our schools.  Time to rise!

Let me close with some sobering observations from Pat Pitney, Director of OMB, in her presentation to the Senate Finance Committee recently:

“Continuing deficits of between $2.5 and $3.0 billion per year will persist even with the expectation of additional oil production included in the Department of Revenue forecast. This represents the largest long-term budget deficit in the nation which has depleted $14 billion in savings over five years.”

“With structured use of Permanent Fund earnings for existing government services anticipated between $1.9 billion and $2.1 billion (contingent on the size of the dividend) the near-term deficit will remain between $600 to $800 million. Conservative budget projections show shrinking deficits, but revenue fails to catch up before the state’s primary savings accounts are depleted.”

Think about that – even if we find the political will to tap the Permanent Fund earnings reserve account (NOT the Permanent Fund itself), we still face deficits of $6-800 million per year.  Alaska’s approach of skate and slide has us on the precipice!

We need to continue to strive for excellence through unity. We have an opportunity to truly make transformative steps in education working with Commissioner Johnson and the State Board of Education as they roll out the Education Challenge next steps.  Please get engaged in that process, help lead the change! We are stronger together and as we approach the coming legislative session. Stay focused on making sure our policymakers hear from us before the session.  I encourage you to meet with them, invite them to your district/schools. Share our stories, tell our truth.  You are shaping the future of Alaska through your dedication to every student in Alaska.