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2/16/2017
Rasmuson CEO: State needs plan this session

By NICK BOWMAN

Daily News Staff Writer

With a divided Alaska Legislature, the Rasmuson Foundation is still aiming for a fiscal plan to address the state’s multibillion-dollar deficits.

Foundation President Diane Kaplan, on a Southeast tour that included a stop in Juneau to talk with lawmakers about legislative priorities, spoke to Ketchikan residents on Wednesday about the nonprofit’s past grants and future programs.

But before her presentation, she quizzed the room at the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce luncheon: Were attendees optimistic about 2017? Why were they hopeful, or worried, about the year to come?

People in the audience — the business community and, it being the Rasmuson Foundation, a sizable nonprofit contingent — said they were mostly optimistic about 2017 because of Ketchikan’s strong tourism economy.

“I would say you're outliers for around the state,” Kaplan said. “We're seeing a lot of concern especially around the state's fiscal situation and how that's going to affect communities.”

The First City and its municipalities aren’t immune to the state’s situation, as audience members pointed out. Others said they were worried about mental health services and changes at the federal level that might affect arts funding.

The Rasmuson Foundation, birthed from the Rasmuson family and their now-sold National Bank of Alaska, has been a force in social services and the arts for more than a decade — contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to causes and groups throughout Alaska — but the latest crash in oil prices and the state’s financial crisis prompted the organization to get involved with state policy.

Foundation board members and staff participated in more than 100 public meetings in 2016, Kaplan said, and stayed active in the public eye supporting a plan for the state that the foundation CEO said is almost definitely going to require a new plan for the Alaska Permanent Fund and new taxes.

Kaplan’s Juneau visit reinforces the foundation’s push for a fiscal plan to clear the state’s multibillion-dollar budget deficits — her chief source of anxiety these days.

“We did a lot polling (in 2016) — where are Alaskans? We've seen a lot of changes occur in the past year,” Kaplan said. “... I think people have gotten, even though they may not like it, understanding that we're probably (going to) have to do something with the permanent fund and how it's used to be able to support the quality of life that we've come to expect.

“The whole issue of new revenues — taxes, the "T" word — people are beginning to realize that it may not be possible to continue with the things that we appreciate and like in the state without looking at new revenues.”

But other big-money voices in Alaska are also getting involved in the debate. Alaska investor Bob Gillam has launched his own advertizing campaign to halt moves toward a state income tax, which he argues would slow down the state economy.

Gillam and other Alaska conservatives are lobbying for more cuts to state government instead of reviving its income tax. The investor also argues for oil production-boosting policies.

“Oil in the pipeline — not an income tax — is the answer that you have the power to accomplish,” Gillam wrote in an open letter to lawmakers.

The divide between Alaskans in favor of a fiscal plan — which since 2014 has become shorthand for a suite of increased or new taxes and a plan to harness the permanent fund — and more conservative residents aiming to avoid tax changes is now showing itself between the Legislature’s two chambers.

Republicans lost control of the Alaska House in the 2016 general election to what is now called the Alaska Majority Coalition — a group of Democrats, moderate Republicans and independents.

But the state Senate remains in Republican hands. While the upper chamber is considering changes to the permanent fund, so far there’s been little appetite for new taxes to cover the deficit in the Senate.

Also in the mix is Gov. Bill Walker, an independent who kicked off the move toward a state fiscal plan and who has more closely aligned with the House majority.

Kaplan said that, liberal or conservative, lawmakers need to forge a path for the state this session to avoid economic uncertainty.

“Businesses don't want to invest if the future is uncertain. People don't want to work here if the future is uncertain; people are worried about their housing values,” she said. “… When people are very uncertain, it creates a very negative business environment.”