By: Former U.S. Senator Mark Begich
Being an elected official is always a great honor, but sometimes it’s not fun. And when it comes to solving the budget crisis in Juneau, it is time to make the tough decisions that are necessary, but not any fun.
When I was elected as mayor of Anchorage in 2003, I was not sworn in until July with half the fiscal year behind us. My administration faced a $33 million budget deficit and more than 60 percent of the community felt Anchorage was heading in the wrong direction. There was little desire to invest in the city and the convention center had failed a public vote just one year earlier.
As far as political environments go, it wasn’t what most politicians would consider fun, but it was our reality.
That is why, as the mayor, I thought it was important to get to work immediately and repair the slow bleed and lack of public trust. We needed to demonstrate that Anchorage was ready to make the tough choices it would require to get back on track. Moreover, we needed to signal that we were prepared for the public and private investment it would take to set our city up for long-term economic growth and stability.
After a tight election, many people thought it was too risky to cut the budget and raise fees to make services pay for themselves, but that is exactly what I had to do. I made the tough choice to cut libraries and reduce vacancies at the police and fire departments. I also went to the tax cap and put forward some of the largest bonds the city had seen in decades.
Those tough choices gave us the flexibility to make critical investments down the road — like building a new convention center and expanding the museum. And by the end of my time as mayor, we had fixed the intersection at Lake Otis Parkway and Tudor Road, and added police and firefighters. We also built two new middle schools, three new fire stations and more roads than the previous three mayors. Most important, the people of Anchorage believed in their future again, with more than 70 percent of the community believing we were moving in the right direction.
But let me be clear: We couldn’t have made those investments if we hadn’t also made the cuts.
That is why I believe the governor should veto the Legislature’s partial budget plan. Will it be popular? Maybe not. But is it the right thing to do? Absolutely.
The Legislature is trying to dodge tough decisions in an election year, leaving the governor looking for alternative solutions to keep the government open. Unfortunately, this is not a new problem and it didn’t happen overnight. The Legislature has repeatedly talked about our budget problems but failed to do anything about it for the long term.
It is time to make the tough decisions. We cannot wait any longer.
Yes, it means that they will have to go back and cut the budget deeper than they have. They will have to raise fees and revenues, and yes, they may have to decide on taxes. They will also have to decide on the long-term health of the Permanent Fund and how it will be used in the future.
Let me be clear: Making these cuts should not get in the way of strategic investments across the state. In Alaska, we are lucky to have strong industries like fisheries, tourism and infrastructure. We have opportunities to partner with the private sector. And we cannot invest in the future without investing in our children and providing a rock-solid education system from K-12 all the way to higher education. The University of Alaska system can and should be both a first-rate educational institution and a reliable revenue generator.
It won’t be fun, but Alaskans know that making these tough choices is necessary. It is time for the folks in Juneau to worry less about political posturing and more about our road to prosperity.
Alaska is a great place to live and raise a family, and I hope our elected officials in Juneau will come together so that continues to be true for generations to come.
Mark Begich served as mayor of Anchorage from 2003-2008 and as U.S. senator from Alaska from 2009-2015.