Southeast Conference held their annual meeting recently. I was happy to participate on their legislative panel. This year, it looked a little different than usual, as we met virtually on Zoom. The week focused on economic recovery from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To be honest, a lot of bleak data was presented in the different sessions. After the pandemic caused closures across Alaska in March, we lost a lot of jobs. From April through July, the region lost nearly 7,000 jobs across every sector, and tourism was particularly devastated. The region has lost 17% of its jobs due to the pandemic so far, and reports from the meeting showed Southeast as being the most economically impacted area in Alaska. Regional unemployment rocketed to 11.3% in July. Oil prices tanked. On top of that, we experienced a terrible fishing season. Economic analysts predict a lot of the economic recovery of Southeast and Alaska in general is going to rely on factors beyond most people’s control, such how fast people get comfortable with traveling and cruising again next year and how many people start going to restaurants around the country to bring up the price/demand of fish.
Another factor that will contribute to Southeast Alaska’s economic rebound is government support and policies. That’s where I—along with the rest of your elected officials—come in. Throughout the course of the pandemic I have worked to put aside politics and work together to help get Alaskans the aid they need to weather this economic downturn.
Now we need to get the economy back on track. Economic advisors at the annual meeting predict that we have very likely reached the bottom in terms of economic activity, but the path forward will not be a straight line, and will likely depend on our ability to prevent another shutdown. As we head into winter, we need to continue to follow local health guidelines so we can keep our families and friends healthy and beat the virus back. There is no path to full economic recovery without containment of the virus.
While there is a lot of uncertainty about what the winter and next session will bring, one thing is for sure: I am going to work together with the Dunleavy administration and legislators from around the state to make sure that Southeast Alaska is economically supported, whether that be through infrastructure, the ferry system, education, fishing, tourism, or other areas of significant importance to Southeast.
Another hot topic for next session, as it has been previously, is the discussion surrounding the Permanent Fund. We must protect the Permanent Fund for all Alaskans present and future, while continuing to have annual dividends. Let us not forget the dividend comes from Permanent Fund Earning Reserve account and is directly tied to the overall health of the fund itself. If, and when, the Earnings Account is spent for dividends or state budget needs, there will be enormous taxes imposed upon Alaskans to meet the state’s financial obligations. Let us remember we have spent $16+ billion in savings the last several years and are running out of financial maneuverability. Our financial liquidity is drying up, and we still owe over $700 million in oil tax credits that have not been addressed in the budgets for the past two years. All the meantime, this has happened while we reduced our expenditures and watched our revenue also decline.
Raiding the Permanent is a short-term solution that temporarily puts off the harder, long-term decisions that must be made. We must focus on fixing the foundational problems in our budget now, as they are guaranteed to get worse if we continue to dig into our savings.
In addition, with the changing political landscape of the Legislature, the debate on moving the capital is alive and well. Special sessions that are moved out of Juneau only reinforce this belief, along with the gradual migration of state employees heading north. The capital is Juneau and should remain as such.
With all that being said, I am hopeful for the future of the great state of Alaska. We still have our resources and our beautiful, wild land. We are not only a beautiful state, we are rich, as well. We are the only state with a multi-billion dollar Permanent Fund for the people. Let’s keep it that way. I am looking forward to coming back to Juneau next session and hope that we can make solid progress on developing a more stable fiscal future for our state.