Here is a sampling of editorial opinions from Alaska newspapers:
Jan. 28, 2014
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Congress should fund tax program important to Fairbanks, other communities
Here's another example of a budget decision made far away and having a potential consequence to Fairbanks. Congress failed to include funding for the annual Payment in Lieu of Taxes program in the federal omnibus spending bill approved earlier this month.
The program provided $742,500 to the Fairbanks North Star Borough in fiscal 2013. That's an amount equal to just less than 1 percent of the property tax revenue raised that year.
The absence of PILT funding in the omnibus spending bill set off alarms in communities across the nation. PILT money flows into more than 1,900 counties and boroughs in every state but Rhode Island. Three U.S. territories also receive funding.
PILT money is the means by which the federal government compensates local governments for the loss of property tax revenue because federal public lands and facilities within the boundaries of local governments cannot be subjected to local taxation.
The federal government last year distributed more than $400 million annually through the program.
With a program that substantial, it should be no surprise that the absence of the funds caught the attention of state and local leaders, including those here in Fairbanks. The Borough Assembly is scheduled to vote on a resolution Thursday asking Congress to fund the long-standing program.
The proposed resolution notes that "the lack of PILT funding would necessitate either a reduction in services provided by local government or an increase in property taxes for the private property owners within the community."
Members of Congress have apparently been hearing from their constituents about the potential loss of funding. The PILT program resurfaced in recent days during House-Senate negotiations on a farm bill.
The Western Governors Association, of which Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell is a member, last week sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, urging full funding of the PILT program in the farm bill.
"Counties with federal land in their jurisdictions often provide vital services on those lands, such as solid waste management, search and rescue, and emergency medical services," the Western Governors letters reads. "The federal government must honor its historic PILT agreement with states and counties to compensate them for tax-exempt federal lands within their borders."
The PILT program is important to so many communities. The federal money pot isn't bottomless, however, and spending reductions beyond those already required under the Budget Control Act of 2011 should be expected.
But the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program is one of those that is about fairness. Local governments would tax the federal property if they could, but they can't. So the federal government is making it up through another mechanism.
The program should be fully funded.
Jan. 26, 2014
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: An education overhaul? Governor's unexpected proposal gives Alaskans lots to consider
One of the members of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Board of Education had it just right when she said this of Gov. Sean Parnell's surprise comments about education policy changes and education funding during his State of the State speech on Wednesday:
"It's too early to say," she said.
That's exactly right. One need only look at the major points in the governor's proposal to understand his ideas aren't slam-dunks.
The governor, in his speech, said he would propose an increase in the basic per-student funding amount for each of the next three years. He said he wanted to see improved access to charter and residential schools, that he wanted to more career technical courses to be offered and that he wants to end the high school graduation exam in favor of giving students the choice of taking either the ACT, SAT or Workkeys tests.
He also said he wants an end to the traditional political debate about education.
"Until now, the debate over education has generally proceeded from two fronts," he said in his speech. "On one side are those who believe reform begins and ends with increased funding. The other side, myself included, has focused on results — what are we getting for what we are already spending?
"In the past, both sides dug into their respective positions, instead of rising up and creatively finding the solutions our children so desperately need.
"Tonight, I want each of us to climb out of whichever trench we are in and declare: 2014 will be the Education Session."
There's not a great track record of two sides coming together in Juneau. But the governor's remarks do set the right public tone from which to start a discussion about education funding.
The governor on Friday presented his plan in greater detail. He proposes increasing the basic per-student funding by $85 the first year, to $5,765, and then by $58 each of the next two years, for a total of $5,881 per students.
He wants school districts to treat charter schools and residential schools in the same manner as other schools in the same district when it comes to funding. His proposal would require a school board to provide "findings of fact and conclusions of law" when rejecting a charter school application and would give denied applicants the opportunity to appeal to the commissioner of the Department of Education and Early Development.
He wants high school students to earn course credit in math, language arts, science, social studies, and world languages by demonstrating proficiency in those subject areas.
He lists several other changes he would like to see.
And he also played some hardball by indicating he would approve a funding increase if the Legislature approves other elements of his education package. It's easy to see how critics view this as some sort of hostage-taking. The governor on Friday laid out how much of an increase he would approve, so logic says he must view it as necessary. So why tie it to other education issues?
A legislative session that once seem destined to have a discussion of oil revenues now seems to have education as a major topic. Gov. Parnell's general aim or improving the quality of education and widening its options are difficult to argue with. But, as with many things, it's the details of his proposal that will cause legislators to have lots of homework.
Education is one of those issues that touches so many households in the state. Talking about improving it is a welcome assignment.
Jan. 25, 2014
Anchorage Daily News: Governor's help to schools is too little
School funds: Governor offers some help but not enough.
Gov. Sean Parnell's proposed increases in the base student allocation marked a departure from his flat-funding policies of the last three years but for the Anchorage School District those increases wouldn't prevent teacher layoffs and other cuts.
Even the total of Parnell's stepped increases over the next three years -- about $200 per student -- wouldn't cover the shortfall in Anchorage this year.
According to the School District, the base allocation would have to rise about $250 per student next year to maintain the status quo.
In addition, while the governor clarified that he is not linking more public school funds to a constitutional amendment allowing public money for private schools, he is maintaining some link to his package of reforms. It's not clear how that will work out as lawmakers consider his reform bill.
Gov. Parnell and lawmakers should separate these issues. Fund our public schools so that we don't have to lay off teachers next year. Layoffs mean larger class sizes, less individual attention, more stress and a tougher environment in which to teach and learn.
That's not how Alaska should meet its constitutional obligation to its public schools and students.
Parnell's proposal brings to mind an old joke about conservatives and liberals. A man is drowning 10 feet offshore. The conservative shouts, "Keep your head up, man!" The liberal throws him a 5-foot rope.
Either way, the man drowns.
Parnell is the liberal in this comparison, offering too little to make the difference that the state's school districts need. Our schools will be weaker.
If the governor wants to put his brand of school reform front and center this session, fine. Let's have those debates and vet his proposals.
But let's also keep our public schools operating at least at their current levels, without teacher layoffs, extra periods or cuts in supplies. That means more than what the governor has offered -- in the case of Anchorage, about three times more next year.
Much talk goes on about what's wrong with our schools, how they are failing us, not performing as they should. Less mentioned is all the great work that goes on in our public schools, day after day, by some good people who care about our kids -- their students.
If we let these cuts stand, we won't improve anything. What we will do is cut some of that great work. That's a policy we should change for keeps.