Alaska’s Fiscal Crisis: Who Speaks for Community?

This articulate opinion piece written by Bill Hall is reprinted here in total with permission as published in the Alaska Dispatch News, February 17, 2016.  I just had to share!

“Our elected leaders tell us we have a fiscal problem because our state does not have enough income to pay for the services we receive. The deficit was estimated at $3.5 billion in January of 2o15. Current estimates place it at $3.8 billion.

Governor Walker calls it fiscal crunch – a cash flow problem. Legislative leaders call it a budget crisis. Both of these perspectives present it as a problem that can be solved by making the right combination of financial decisions:

  • The amount we spend on government,
  • How much we are willing to pay for it, and
  • Who should be paying for what?

Whatever choices are made, either for us or by us, they will change the government we have known since income from our oil and gas assets relieved us of the obligation to pay for the services we all demanded. This makes it more than a budgetary problem. At its heart, it is a problem of community – what kind of community do we desire for future generations and ourselves? And how can we create that community with the resources we have? These are questions of the needs, principles and values that we hold and our government should serve – moral questions. We can make fiscal choices with moral consequences. Or, we can make moral choices with fiscal consequences.

We live in a representative democracy. Our State Constitution tells us that government is founded upon our will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the people as a whole. But what is our will and how can we serve the public good? For our representative democracy to work, we must be able to give direction to those we elect. How can we create a public voice? John Dewey writing in 1927 worried that the competing interests of individuals would so divide people as to prevent them from engaging in the face-to-face conversations from which a public voice could emerge.

So, here we are in 2016. Corporations argue for solutions that will protect their profits. The rich argue for solutions that will protect their wealth and preserve their income. The middle class struggles to make ends meet. Working people struggle to earn a living wage. And the poor are silent in their shame believing they are responsible for their failures – that they are not good enough. As we seek to protect ourselves from one another, who speaks for our interdependence, our connectedness, our humanity? How can we create a public voice that speaks for community?

The people’s voice is created by people listening to people in search of something they may recognize as, or of, themselves. Part me, part you; it emerges in dialogues that reveal the needs, interests, values and feelings around which we connect in relationship. The people’s voice is a voice that speaks for everyone and no one. Not the voice of one individual, but the distillation of many dialogues from which the possibilities of conjoined action begin to form an idea of community. And in the idea of community is the possibility that we may be able to do something together that we cannot do alone – the idea of government.

Speaking for community begins with speaking in community – with conversations among neighbors, friends, and acquaintances about our shared needs, hopes and dreams. Our State Constitution defines the purpose of our government, the freedoms we enjoy, and our obligations.  It emphasizes that we all  “have corresponding obligations to the people and to the state.” How we choose to fulfill these obligations should frame the work we do to create the public voice that can speak for community. As the American philosopher John Dewey (1927) explained, it is not necessary that citizens have the knowledge to formulate solutions to complex problems. It is only necessary that we have the ability to judge how well solutions proposed by others serve our shared needs and values – the public good.”

Bill Hall was born in Cordova before we had a state government. He served as a city councilman and mayor. He worked for the state legislature from the late 60’s through the early 80’s, listening and learning. He has also worked in banking, politics, education and commercial fishing. He now volunteers as a facilitator with Let’s Talk Alaska. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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