Tuesday, April 23, 2019

"If we want more stability in state services, there’s a simple answer"

That was the title of an ADN editorial board editorial Sunday.  

First and most obvious, if there were a simple answer it would have been found long ago.  There are no simple answers in politics or government (which are not the same things, though they overlap.)

So what is that simple answer according to the editorial board?

After listing numerous shortfall's in this year's budget, they tell us:
"There’s also a simple solution that would go far toward helping restore that stability: Honesty in the budgeting process."

I agree that honesty in the budget process is helpful for the public to understand what's going on.  But is it simple?  Hell no.

First, the budget has to account for billions of dollars, so it's going to be long and complicated no matter what.  But sure, there are ways to make it easier to follow or harder to follow.
Second, the politicians - the governor and the legislators - who are trying to please constituents and funders with rewards that might not be appreciated by most, try to hide those items.   Questionable special favor allocations or cuts are well hidden in rows and columns of numbers that are hard to comprehend.
Third,  in these times of ideological warfare, many items will come under attack no matter how good they are for the general public.  Either they're ideologically unacceptable for one side or the other, or they might appear as a 'win' for one side and loss for the other.
These are just a few reasons why achieving a transparent budget is NOT simple.

Let's move on to the third paragraph of the editorial:
 "Sometimes, as with the senior benefits program, speedier processing of benefit applications results in more people than expected joining a program, draining funds more quickly. But failing to foresee scenarios like that - or deal with them swiftly when they arise - is a failure of leadership. Like not considering prices below $60 per barrel of oil as a realistic possibility for tax purposes, as happened before the 2014 price slump, failing to recognize or plan for the possibility of an uptick in benefit recipients is an indictment of our elected and appointed representatives."

OK, usually people are complaining that government doesn't act fast enough.  But when they do, they get criticized too.  Are they saying that by getting eligible people into the program quickly, the cost is too high?  If so, it's one of the few times I've seen government criticized for doing too good a job.

:et's look at the failure of leadership comment.
"But failing to foresee scenarios like that - or deal with them swiftly"   
Government is not a business where the CEO has the final say.  In a democratic government, decision making power is divided in different ways.  Broad policy making is supposed to be reserved for elected officials and their helpers, the high level appointed officials.  Career public servants are then asked to fill in the mechanical details of,  and then carry out, the policies.

But it's more complicated than that.  Power is split between the governor's office and the legislature (and, if needed, the courts.)  But the legislature is further split between the Senate and the House.  And each of those bodies is split between Republicans and Democrats and a few independents.

Leadership in such a situation isn't easy.  What's needed is peacemakers, maybe even therapists, as much as leaders.  But how do you make peace with people who see you as the enemy and whose supporters (voters and funders) tell them not to compromise?

In contrast, a marriage is simple.  There are only two policy makers and possibly some subjects of the policy (children.)  Often in a marriage, one of the two policy makers dominates the other.  Occasionally, the two work together in harmony.  But frequently they fight and disagree on everything.

Ask any divorce attorney how 'simple' it is to get angry spouses to work out the settlement of their property, and custody of the kids, even of the dog.

Then the editorial talks about oil tax credits.
 "they’re a classic example of the state’s destabilizing tendency to make a promise and then leave those who make plans based on that promise holding the bag, making residents wary and businesses disinclined to make investments in Alaska."
And to not look partisan, the editorial suggests the administration oughtn't renege on the two year school funding or senior benefits.

But this is the nature of a two year legislature that cannot commit funds beyond their two year session. (And since the new session just began, last year's commitments aren't law.)  It's also the nature of the power of large corporations to extract benefits from a legislature it paid for (in campaign contributions, in propaganda campaigns, and strong arm lobbying.)

When a commitment is made against the strong objections of the minority, then when that minority gets more power, that commitment will be challenged.  The oil companies have been telling Alaskans for years how they're going to pick up and leave if they don't get their way.  Well, either they've been bluffing or they've been getting their way.   [Figuring out comparative tax regimes is even more opaque than the Alaska budget.  Here's a long essay on whether Alaska oil taxes are fair by King Economics Group.  Unfortunately it doesn't compare our taxes to those of other oil producing states and countries.   And, it turns out, Ed King, according to his LinkedIn page,  has been Alaska's Chief Economist since Dunleavy took control in December 2018.    This ISER report also is focused only on in-state.   This OPEC comparison of oil taxes isn't about the industry taxes, but taxes at the pump. Finally, this ADN article says ConocoPhillips' Alaska region is its most profitable by far.  But that's not the point of this post, but I didn't want to make a statement without some backup.]

In the last paragraph, the ADN comes to its conclusion.
"So what’s the better answer? Make the hard choices — fund services fully or be up-front about the fact that they’ve been cut — instead of kicking the can down the road."
So, now they seem to be acknowledging that the 'simple' answer is really a 'hard choice.'  They don't talk about who has been kicking that can.  About the Republicans being in power for most of the last ten years when the budget kept going up, or how the Democrats have been trying to raise revenues with income or sales taxes, but the Republicans continue to block that.

Their simple isn't simple.  It's pap.

Here's a headline that caught my eye several years ago.
"For GOP presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina, solving the nation’s biggest challenges is pretty simple — “it’s not rocket science,” as she likes to say."
Here was my response:  Note To Carly Fiorina: Solving Nation's Problems Harder Than Rocket Science  It delves into other aspects of the difficulty of good government.

1 comment:

  1. A good read re structural conflicts that make government 'by the people, for the people' what it is, Herr Professor. If I may give it all a go, electoral politics organises efforts aligning purpose -- or failing that, aligning objectives -- to create polity (no matter how temporary) requiring voting majorities.

    Anyway, nice to read analysis first thing in the morning, lifting fuzziness from one's thinking.


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