Frustration with Alaska lawmakers was front and center at a gathering of local government officials from around the state last week. The Alaska Municipal League held its summer legislative conference in Haines. Mayors, managers and city councilors discussed the most recent legislative session and planned for the upcoming one. Much of the talk was focused on the state’s budget uncertainty.
Kathie Wasserman is AML’s executive director. In her opening remarks, she struck a note of irritation that resonated throughout the day.
“When you’re in front of the legislature, don’t let them intimidate you,” Wasserman said. “We need to get answers from them. They work for us.”
AML lobbies for the interests of local governments across Alaska. Wasserman said the legislature’s failure to pass a sustainable budget is hurting municipalities.
In June, the state legislature passed an eleventh-hour budget that leans on billions of dollars in savings.
“I don’t tour the state bashing the legislature, I really don’t,” said Gov. Bill Walker. He spoke at the conference and echoed Wasserman’s concerns.
Walker encouraged the mayors and city councilors to put more pressure on their representatives. He said, if you don’t think they’re doing a good job, run against them.
“We’ve got to end this spiral of drawing down on savings and everybody’s comfortable and safe and keeps getting re-elected,” Walker said.
Wasserman also called out what she sees as a trend in which the state shifts financial responsibility onto local governments.
“Unfunded mandates – that is getting bigger and bigger because we’re getting cost shifts [with] road maintenance, airport maintenance, public safety,” Wasserman said. “All kinds of things you didn’t have to pay for and now you have to pay much more for. And the state will continue to shirk off some of those duties if they can.”
An example of this is playing out right now in Haines. The Alaska State Troopers, under pressure of a downsized budget, cut Haines’ trooper post. That officer was the main law enforcement protection for a large part of the borough.
Now, the local assembly is trying to decide whether to pay for an expansion of the police department’s jurisdiction. That would give more reliable service to areas in limbo after the trooper departure.
Gov. Walker told Haines media that pulling the trooper isn’t a long-term solution.
“I still contend that we’re gonna look at ways of re-establishing that once we get our fiscal house in order,” Walker said. “To figure out how we’re going to do that, so.”
He said that if Haines does expand police jurisdiction, it won’t hurt the possibility of the trooper being re-instated.
“I don’t think that will be used against Haines, let’s put it that way,” Walker said. “Because Haines is stepping up, taking care of themselves, I don’t think that’s going to be a negative. I just don’t.”
Haines’ trooper situation is just one example of how state budget issues place a burden on municipalities. In this case, there’s no definite answer on whether the new arrangement is temporary.
“We’re probably a little gun-shy to take big steps,” said Haines Mayor Jan Hill.
She said municipalities can’t make “bold” choices under the cloud of the state fiscal deficit.
“We need to get the legislature to do their job and get us the budget that we need so we can do our job,” Hill said.
At the AML conference, Alaska mayors decided to form a committee with the specific intent of lobbying the legislature for a viable spending plan.
Wasserman says aside from that, AML’s goals remain the same: to shield municipalities from harmful legislation and unfunded mandates.