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11/19/2019
AML, governor should be working together

November 2018 seems a very long time ago in Alaska’s political arena.

For example, on Nov. 16, 2018, the Alaska Municipal League membership adopted a set of principles, priorities and position statements.

Among the many fine concepts was support for “adequate state funding for basic public services and infrastructure, such as: education, public safety, health, emergency services and transportation that is necessary for strong and vibrant municipalities.”

There was opposition to “cost-shifting to municipalities and eliminating essential services,” and to “any reduction in school funding.” There was support for policies that “reduce tax burdens on local government and reimburse for state-mandated exemptions.”

Given that AML represents nearly all of Alaska’s municipalities, its 2018 principles, prioirities and position statements together formed a thorough wish list of items viewed as positive — in some instances necessary — for maintaining the viability of Alaska’s local municipalities.

Three months later, on Feb. 13, a new governor proposed a state budget with cuts and cost shifts of jaw-dropping magnitude. AML and its constituent municipalities, in addition to individual citizens and entities across Alaska, were blindsided. Then they were shocked to discover that the governor and his administration hadn’t bothered to analyse the potential effects of such cuts, several of which struck at the heart of AML priorities.

To its credit, AML did not stay quiet.

It quickly issued a statement that, instead of “rightsizing” the size of state government, the governor’s proposed budget would significantly weaken the “institutions that define Alaska’s well-being and future prosperity,” neglect some of the state’s responsibilities, pit communities and programs against each another, and not signal that Alaska is open for business.

An April 3 letter from AML to the governor and Alaska legislators was clear in its assesment of one aspect of the governor’s proposed budget — to renege on the state’s commitment to reimburse communities for 60%-70% of school bond debt.

  “The governor has promised to restore ‘trust in government,’” stated the letter, which also was signed by 17 Alaska mayors, including then Ketchikan Gateway Borough Mayor David Landis. “(The governor’s) first step toward doing so is by breaking a promise the state made to those voters and to those local governments. Alaska residents and municipalities made their decision to support schools in good faith, faith that has been broken. The message to Alaska voters and to taxpayers is that the state cannot be a trusted partner.”

After the Alaska Legislature worked to restore portions of the budget, the governor vetoed significant components of that budget.

Following the vetoes, AML on June 28 issued a statement describing the effects of specific vetoes on local communities.

“Vetoes of this scope and scale very definitely have the potential to disrupt the lives and livelihoods of community residents, the business decisions of investors, and the capacity of our local governments to support those organizational partners who depend on state funding,” AML Executive Director Nils Andreassen said in the statement, which continued with “we’re struck by the intersection of so many of these vetoes with Article 7 of the (Alaska) Constitution —  public education, the university, public health, and public welfare. These are constitutional obligations of the state that provide the fundamental building blocks of a resilient society and a successful economy.”

The AML statement indicated that sorting out the full impact of the budget reductions would take some time.

 “Clearly, as the state retreats from its roles and responsibilities, local governments are being asked to do more,” according to the statement.

AML President Tim Navarre concluded the statement by saying that AML is committed to working on solutions with legislative leaders and state officials to “ensure that this challenge is met with the least possible negative impacts to our most vulnerable communities and residents.”

The months have ticked by since late June, and here we are in mid-November. The governor is required to submit his proposed 2021 state budget to the Legislature by Dec. 15. AML’s annual conference is this week in Anchorage.

To our knowledge, neither the governor nor key members of his administration have been involved in any public meetings regarding the formulation of his next proposed budget.

The draft agenda for this week’s AML conference, as of early Monday afternoon, contains no presentation from the administration regarding budgets past, current or future.

This would be a missed opportunity. After the great blindside of Feb. 13, 2019, Alaska’s governor and administration should be getting out ahead of its next proposed budget. The AML annual conference, with its audience of local-government decision-makers from across the state, is an excellent venue to make the governor’s case — and hear responses.

Either way, AML should be preparing to take its case to the governor and Legislature in the days, weeks and months ahead. Effects of the current budget are becoming apparent — the Alaska Marine Highway System, for example —and entities such as AML should be working early and often to ensure that the state-level decision-makers understand the effects of state budgets on the local levels.