It’s Time for a Responsible Alaska Budget

By Vance Ginn, Ph.D. and Quinn Townsend

Families in Alaska, whether in good or bad economic times, practice responsible, priority-based budgeting. They must make decisions, often difficult ones, on how best to spend their hard-earned dollars. The same is true for small business owners who must prioritize their spending to keep their doors open, meet payroll, and provide for themselves.

Alaska’s government should do the same, and even more so given it’s not their money.

The way to do this is for the state to practice priority-based budgeting, whereby legislators take a close look at how every taxpayer dollar is spent. By doing so, state officials can allocate funding so that it doesn’t exceed the state’s ability to pay for it, as appropriately measured by population growth plus inflation.

Considering Alaska budget trends over the last two decades, there has been an improvement since 2016. During the period from 2001 to 2015, the average annual budget increased by 9.9%, which was three times faster than population growth plus inflation. Since then, the budget has declined annually by 7.3%, on average, while this key measure increased by just 1.6%, meaning that the recent growth of state government has helped to correct for prior excesses.

From 2001 to 2021, the budget grew on an average annual basis by 4.7%, which was nearly double that of population growth plus inflation. The excesses in the earlier period compounded over time to result in an inflation-adjusted state budget per capita in FY21 that is 10.9%, or $601 million, more than this key metric.

Some in Alaska have argued that there is no more fat to trim from the budget, that the state has cut everything it can since the highest spending years. But because the enacted budget, year after year, allocates more state funds than the state is able to sustain, it’s clear that difficult decisions are necessary. Just like a family or business prioritizes their budget based on necessities before wants, Alaska must be responsible and do the same.

This is why a fiscal rule of a responsible spending limit on state funds in Alaska is essential. This can be achieved by capping state appropriations to growing no more than population growth plus inflation every year.

As noted above, if the budget had matched population growth plus inflation over the last two decades, the state could have saved about $800 per Alaskan this year. This means the state would be budgeting about $600 million less in FY21 thereby helping to avoid its current attempt to dig itself out of a fiscal crisis and would probably not have drained its savings accounts either.

But we can’t change the past, only learn from our mistakes and do better. Much better. This will take responsibility and discipline, two things common to Alaskans.

Alaska Policy Forum’s Responsible Alaska Budget sets the maximum threshold on state appropriations based on population growth plus inflation over the last year, similar to what a meaningful spending cap should do.

Specifically, our maximum threshold on FY22 state appropriations is $6.18 billion after an increase of 0.92%. Achieving this feat and working to increase the budget less than this amount will help immensely in reducing the cost of funding government.

History has demonstrated that governments cannot spend and tax their way to prosperity. Alaska’s spending over the past two decades has proven that.

Policymakers should consider Alaska Policy Forum’s Responsible Alaska Budget and work to further limit spending. Keeping spending levels lower will not only serve Alaskans’ interests, but it will also make Alaska more economically competitive so that residents have more opportunities to achieve their hopes and dreams.

Vance Ginn, Ph.D., is chief economist at the Texas Public Policy Foundation based in Austin, Texas. He is the former chief economist of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) during the Trump administration.

Quinn Townsend is the Policy Manager at Alaska Policy Forum based in Anchorage, Alaska. Previously, Quinn worked as the Economic Research Analyst at The Buckeye Institute. She completed her M.S. in Resource Economics and Management at West Virginia University.