This is my first letter as president of the Associated General Contractors of Alaska, so as a little review before I sat down to write, I read through 60-plus messages from my predecessors going all the way back to the 2000s and I noticed some recurring themes. There’s one theme in particular that is especially important to AGC members, so I think it’s worth trotting out one more time: We in Alaska need to get our finances in order.
People have been saying this for a long time. Back in 2002, AGC’s then-president Marie Wilson wrote, “We seem to write about fiscal responsibility, talk about it often, but go on with our daily life without changing much.” I remember similar talk back in the 1980s, when low oil prices sent the Alaska economy into a downward spiral not that much different from the one it’s in today. The problem has been clear for decades.
The solution has also been clear. We need to raise revenues. If we want infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, schools and all the other things that we want, we need to find some way to get the money to pay for them. That might mean taxes. I don’t like that dirty word any more than anyone else, but it has to be on the table. It might mean raising the gas tax or doing away with the permanent fund dividend, at least in years when the budget isn’t balanced. Or maybe it means dipping into the fund itself.
So, if both the problem and the possible solutions have been clear for decades, why haven’t we done any-thing about it? The answer, of course, is that it was much easier to keep doing what we were doing already. After the downturn in the 1980s, oil revenues were good for decades, and our members of Congress could reliably bring home the federal bacon. Having one-third of the state economy based on one commodity was obviously a risk, but it always seemed like there would be time to do something about it later. We were drunk on oil money, and what a drunk it was. But like any good drunk, at some point we have to sober up.
It’s easy to blame our legislators for our current mess. After all, they’re the ones guiding the ship, right? That’s true, but we as constituents and voters should also take a look at ourselves. For a long time, we’ve been willing to accept politicians’ assurances that we could keep spending without any new ways of paying for it. Too many of us have been complacent. We elect our legislative representatives, send them to Juneau, and we think our work is done. I remember when I was growing up, my mom would send hand-written letters to her members of Congress, letting them know what she thought. She would advertise that they’d write her back. Our legislators need to hear from us.
That kind of engagement is where AGC has an important role to play in the direction of the state. For a number of years, I’ve gone with the AGC legislative fly-in to Juneau, and getting involved and talking about our issues with lawmakers is one of the most valuable things we do as an organization. We might not always agree, but we are part of the process. We have a loud voice in this state. Our 650 member organizations employ tens of thousands of people, and our payrolls are second only to that of the oil industry. The state’s problems are our problems, and they won’t get fixed with us standing on the sidelines.
None of the solutions to Alaska’s fiscal problems will be fun or easy, but the hangover is going to be a lot worse the longer we wait. As my predecessor Dan Hall wrote just last year, “We all need to grab the yoke and start to pull because not making any of these hard decisions will be catastrophic for Alaska.” Hopefully the next AGC president won’t need to repeat this same old story.