"The easy choices have already been made. Now we are at the juncture where with or without the public’s consent we have to make some tough choices. If we don’t make those tough choices today, the future of not just our smaller communities but Alaska as a whole is going to be approaching the tipping point.”
This conversation originally aired on the Dec. 23 Bristol Bay and Beyond. Listen below.
Dave Bendinger, KDLG: Times is tough, Alaska … no two ways about it. Our first guest this week is a man on a mission: Bryce Edgmon was reelected in November and that same day selected as the Speaker of the House in a new majority coalition that says it will tackle the state’s historic fiscal challenges. Edgmon has continued to speak up about the heavy lifts ahead to fill an estimated $3 billion dollar budget gap, and restructure Alaska’s books to move away from dependency on revenues from oil that just aren’t what they used to be. Governor Bill Walker put forward his proposed budget last week, and Speaker Edgmon stopped by Thursday to offer his reaction to the Governor’s numbers.
Rep. Bryce Edgmon: “Well the Governor’s budget always reflects certainly the government’s priority but it’s clearly a document that’s primary nature. It does have, in a sense, a desire to work with all the constituencies in the budgets, education on down. And it’s a document that sort of avoids some of the harder choices like some of the funding sources. There’s a nine hundred million gap in terms of where the money comes from. I assume that’s predicated on the Legislature taking action next session, but you go back into time and you look at the Governor’s budget in years past and the document has always been one part substance, and another part sort of tinged with political messages as well.”
Bendinger: “What do you think his political message was? I saw some more reduced spending though I personally did not see many cuts to rural Alaska versus what we saw last year. I saw restructuring of the Permanent Fund to keep that thousand dollar PFD, and I saw some increased taxes around motor fuels and such. What’s his message?”
Edgmon: "Well I think to his credit the Governor is espousing that look, we’ve cut state spending to the point now where we are at the cusp of eliminating programs in there entirety. You cannot continue to cut agency spending, in particular some departments have been cut 60 maybe 70 percent in the last three to four years. It’s not just the bureaucrats that are losing jobs, but its important programs like energy programs and a number of other programs that are really important to Alaska. I think the other thing that this budget reflects is that he’s approaching this upcoming Legislative session with a different philosophy in terms of how to tackle the long term physical crisis. Last year he put a package together that was a little bit of everything, and I think in the end we all felt that there were to many things on the table at one time, and it all got too congested. Before you knew it we’re fighting amongst various pieces or oil taxes were being leveraged against the reconstruction of the Permanent Fund, and survivors benefits in there, and a whole bunch of other elements going on. So the Governor this year is taking a simpler approach in terms of working with the Legislature on the new revenues aspect of it all and the budget cuts that are going to be coming forth are probably going to be more pronounced when the Legislature gets a hold of the Governor’s budget, and the Governor certainly probably understands that. I think he is positioning himself to be hopefully a stronger partner with the Legislature. That his budget is a starting point and that it’s not reflective of what’s going to emerge at the end of session, whenever that is, this upcoming spring.”
Bendinger: “Those of you that are heading back to the House have been back to hear from your constituents to stand for election. You’ve gotten a good sense of what’s on the minds of folks and you in particular, you haven’t been shy that this is a historic moment and heavy lifting needs to happen. You didn’t hide that message during the election. Now as Speaker of the House, do you think you and your colleagues will have the political oomph to move the ball forward this session?”
Edgmon: “We certainly will in the House. And that’s the impetus behind the majority coalition coming together was that we are all like-minded in our commitment to making the tough choices necessary to solve the physical situation in Alaska. Now nobody expects it to be easy, and it’s been said many times over: the easy choices have already been made. Now we are at the juncture where, with or without the public’s consent, we have to make some tough choices. If we don’t make those tough choices today, the future of not just our smaller communities but Alaska’s whole is going to be approaching the tipping point here.”
Bendinger: “What are those tough choices do you think? I’ve been in a few meetings where you sort of laid out some of the options to constituents. What do you tell people what those tough choices will be?”
Edgmon: “Well I think the legislative finance director, when he was in Dillingham in late September, he kind of put it best. He said it’s probably yanking on all the levers, all of the above. But from my perspective as a rural legislature, doing it in a way that’s fair to bush Alaska, and that it’s not going to be highly regressive on a lot of our residents, many who do not make a lot of money throughout the course of the year. That’s going to be a really tall challenge, but that’s the philosophy that I’m putting forward. Having to find new revenues in a state that did not have to look that hurricane in the eye for some forty years. Having subsisted off the oil industry since the first drop flowed through in 1977 to largely fund state government. It’s just tough all the way around.”
Bendinger: “Are you looking forward into settling into the new role? How’s it gone for you so far in the week since the election?”
Edgmon: “I think it’s gone well, it’s clearly been an adjustment, and I know I have big shoes to fill once I get down into Juneau. But I’m a veteran of the process down there, and I’m somebody who I like to think is fairly evenly keeled in my approach to things. I take matters day by day, as the cliché goes, but I have not been equally shy to anybody letting people know that this upcoming session might be the most difficult session the legislature seen in many, many years in Alaska.”
Reach Dave Bendinger by email, or by phone at 907-842-5281.