Out There

The “Make Everyone Mad” Fiscal Plan

Posted in politics by Pete on March 19, 2015

The state of Alaska is currently in an economic free fall due to a precipitous drop in the price of oil.  This seems to happen every 15 years or so and the symptoms are becoming a little familiar.  Right now we’re at this part of the ride:

roller-coaster-scared

To take the metaphor a little further – the folks who can see what is ahead are FREAKED, while a bunch of other people are still just “enjoying the ride” without a clue about what lies ahead.  I got this pic from here:  https://bettiesparties.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/roller-coaster-scared.jpg

Or if you prefer:

Anyway the Alaska Dispatch has produced a 3-part take on the current fiscal situation that gives a good overview of the historical context of our situation, and the difficult political realities that surround any of the actual solutions.  The piece by Dermot Cole includes these quotes:

Legislators and the Parnell administration signed off on the 2015 the budget last spring, portraying it as a model of conservatism, fully confident oil would stay near $100 a barrel.

While they ran for office last summer and fall, no one warned of oil prices in the $55 range or that a collapse was coming.

The state budget analysis did not include oil price predictions below $90, which seemed reasonable at the time. It’s apparent now they were not.

It’s no surprise some lawmakers have invested more time in marijuana regulations and ending daylight saving time than in preparing for the likelihood that, if oil prices don’t rise, the next step will be a giant one off the fiscal cliff.

It’s easier to fume about federal overreach or hope the problem will just go away than fill a budget hole that amounts to about $5,000 per Alaskan per year.

$5,000 per Alaskan per year!!  The actual total figure is $3.5 billion.  To put that in some context, a state income tax would raise something like $350 million.  And no amount of cuts gets the state anywhere near a balanced budget.  At this point, really nothing is being done other than lots of small cuts that probably are penny-wise and pound foolish in the long run (from that last link, cutting the parents as teachers program seems the dumbest given that the program costs well under $1m per year to operate).

“Some suggest elected officials will wait until the state falls over the cliff into the ‘fiscal gap’ because only then will enough elected officials believe they have constituent support to access previously unused revenue sources such as the Permanent Fund earnings or to reinstate a personal income tax,” Commonwealth North said in a 2007 report, reflecting a sentiment shared by any number of Alaskans over the years.

And I believe that those elected officials will NOT pursue the income tax very seriously, instead just taking money from the permanent fund, which amounts a massively regressive tax on the poor.

The UPSET plan

Sometimes the only fair plan is the one that makes EVERYONE mad. While it is true that taking from the PFD is regressive and hurts the poor the most, others will argue that an income tax is unfair to the rich and hardly affects the poor at all. Which is why we need BOTH.  And more.

  • Understand that we all have to pitch in to work toward a better future for our state.
  • Personal income tax – The income tax as it existed before I believe was a simple 10% of whatever you paid the feds that year so it takes about 30 seconds to figure out.  I believe this would be about $350M, and even more importantly would get people more invested in state government instead of just viewing everything as an automatic benefit without cost.
  • Sales Tax – Add a 5% tax statewide on everything other than food.  No idea what this would raise – probably something similar to the income tax.
  • Earnings from the permanent fund.  Use say 20% of the fund earnings for current year spending (40% to the fund, 40% used as payouts).  This amounts to more than $1B most years.
  • Take 15% from the budget of every state department/program, rather than picking and choosing which to eliminate and which to leave unscathed.  I know some programs can’t be cut for legal reasons so not sure what this would save – probably something just under a billion.

The only really fair way is to hit all of us at once rather than trying to get it all from one source that affects one population disproportionately more than the others.  This is all just “back of the napkin” stuff but probably makes our 3.5B deficit something more like a $1b deficit.  Of course you are free to quibble with the particular numbers but you get the general idea.  Obviously we all hope the price of oil goes back up, but until then something should be done.  Now.

Alaska Politics as Usual

Posted in politics by Pete on March 19, 2015

Sigh.  This isn’t that big of a deal, but wasn’t it just a few years ago that the FBI did it’s big sting operation in our state capitol?  How quickly we forget.  The Alaska state legislature is apparently about to change the deadline for filing annual financial disclosure reports from March 15 to May 15.  Allegedly so that the date lines up better with tax day.  Note that the legislative session runs from Jan 20 to April 19, so that the new date is almost a month after everyone has left Juneau.  Les Gara has it right:

“The public is entitled to know what potential conflicts we have, what business interests we own, during session when the bills are pending — not after session, after it’s too late,” said Gara.

If the concern really has to do with tax day, why not change to April 15, when they’re at least still (barely) in session?  And the truth is that most people have done their taxes by March 15 anyway.  Most people have all the financial information needed to do it by the end of January – March 15th was not an impractical burden.  So it’s tough not to be cynical here.  It seems that the politicians don’t like having people going through their reports and identifying conflicts of interest during the session.  Real-time accountability and transparency are good, but this reduces both.  Maybe we should just get rid of the filing requirement altogether?  Or require a filing 10 years after they quit the legislature?  Sigh.

Kindergarten Truancy

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on February 18, 2015

This is meant as an open letter to the Alaska legislature, Governor Walker, parents, and educational leaders across the state.  Alaska law currently makes school attendance mandatory for kids between the ages of 7 and 16.

Here is the statute:

(a) Every child between seven and 16 years of age shall attend school at the public school in the district in which the child resides during each school term. Every parent, guardian or other person having the responsibility for or control of a child between seven and 16 years of age shall maintain the child in attendance at a public school in the district in which the child resides during the entire school term, except as provided in (b) of this section.

I’ve come to think this is a problem.

All too often I see kids who are enrolled in kindergarten who attend extremely sporadically and are then retained.  Today in one of the rural school districts I work in I was asking the kindergarten teacher about one of the students on my caseload, trying to get a feel for the student’s standing relative to their classmates, their progress this year, and any teacher concerns.  The teacher reported that the child can perform about as well as their classmates when they are paying attention and physically in school.  She mentioned that three kids were retained from last year’s kindergarten class (including my student), and she wants to retain 4 more from this year’s class, and she believes the reason for why all those kids are behind is truancy, with some of her kids attending about 2/3 of the time (40 absences by mid Feb).  I asked if the school has filed truancy reports or anything and she reminded me that until the child is 7 there is nothing the teacher or school can do.  I’ve been involved in education in the bush for over 10 years and I’ve seen this happen with kindergartners time after time.  But today it just struck me as illogical and silly that we go after parents who let their 4th grader or 8th grader stay home, but we allow it with kindergartners.  Truancy is a huge, chronic issue in the bush.  If we allow it to be a habitual thing for the first 2 years of school with no penalty, should we be surprised that it remains an issue for the rest of that child’s life in school?

I believe the intent of the law is to allow parents to decide when their child is ready to start kindergarten, so the state isn’t forcing 5 year-olds to begin school.  I don’t take issue with that.  However, I do take issue when the parents decide it IS time to start school, but then the child shows up half the time.  If it is obvious that it isn’t working for whatever reason, the parents should withdraw the child and try again the following year.  Or at least have a conversation with the teacher where it is acknowledged that they aren’t really trying to go to first grade in the next year and that the school shouldn’t be trying to move heaven and earth to get the child the extra help required to make it happen.

The law in section (b) makes exceptions to mandatory attendance, for things like illness, private school, living far from the nearest school, etc.  Then way at the end there is this:

(c) If a parent, legal guardian, or other person having the responsibility for or control of the child elects to enroll a child who is six years of age in first grade at a public school, after enrollment, the child is subject to the provisions of (a) and (b) of this section. If the parent or guardian of a child who is six years of age and is enrolled in first grade at a public school determines, within 60 days after the child is enrolled, that the best interests of the child are not being served by enrollment in the first grade, the child may be withdrawn from school, and the provisions of (a) and (b) of this section do not apply to the child until the child is seven years of age.

I think it should be changed to this:

(c) If a parent, legal guardian, or other person having the responsibility for or control of the child elects to enroll a child who is FIVE OR six years of age in KINDERGARTEN OR first grade at a public school, after enrollment, the child is subject to the provisions of (a) and (b) of this section. If the parent or guardian of a child who is FIVE OR six years of age and is enrolled in KINDERGARTEN OR first grade at a public school determines, within 60 days after the child is enrolled, that the best interests of the child are not being served by enrollment in the first grade, the child may be withdrawn from school, and the provisions of (a) and (b) of this section do not apply to the child until the child is seven years of age.

This is a small change but would help to combat runaway truancy, while not taking away from the spirit of the law which allows parents the freedom to determine when their child begins kindergarten.