Alaska editorials

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By The Associated Press — Here is a sampling of editorial opinions from Alaska newspapers:

Nov. 23, 2015

Juneau Empire: The cost of avoiding bad press

Alaska finds itself marred by its third major scandal in less than a decade. First was a VECO bribery scandal that ended the careers of several politicians and left a dark cloud hanging over the capital; then the National Guard sexual assault scandal that likely aided in former Gov. Sean Parnell being voted out of office; and now it's been revealed the Department of Corrections is responsible, at least in part, for the deaths of Alaskans.

It seems these are the costs of avoiding a little bad press now and then.

We've said it already but it needs saying once more: Alaska's Sunshine Laws are an affront to transparency in how our government works. The state consistently ranks among the lowest in the nation in this category. It seems 2015 was no different. According to the Center for Public Integrity's recent report, Alaska got an F grade, again, when it comes to open records laws. We didn't need a report to know this, however, as we experience it often.

The Empire requested information about the Aug. 14, 2014, death of Joseph Murphy. Murphy died while in custody at Lemon Creek Correctional Center. He was never charged with a crime and was held so he could sleep off a drunken stupor.

The Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the Empire for information such as security camera footage and cause of death was denied, just as many other requests to DOC in recent years have been. We've even been told in the past to not bother asking because the answer would be "no."

Following the release of a Nov. 17 report outlining problems within the department, some that appear to be outright criminal, we understand why transparency wasn't welcome at DOC. To let the public in would have been to expose its dark secrets. But it also might have saved a few lives if issues had been exposed sooner.

When media outlets are prevented from watchdogging government entities fully, it should come as no surprise when issues like these blow up. Instead of reporting on a single incident the problem continues to fester until the lid is blown off by a third-party investigation and every piece of dirt is exposed. People lose jobs, leaders resign their posts and lawsuits are quick to follow. And all to avoid accountability and some bad press. Alaskans deserve better, but we're not holding our breath it will get better.

These barriers must come down, however, and we're looking to Gov. Bill Walker to lead the way.

Walker said from the beginning he wanted Alaska's natural gasline project to be transparent. That's a start, but a pipeline isn't capable of raping or killing Alaskans. If transparency truly is important to the governor, he'll extend it to every branch of government.

Following the scathing report about the problems in DOC, Walker said the only change he will oversee is "the change at the top," referring to the resignation of DOC Commissioner Ronald Taylor, who was on the job for less than a year after being appointed by Walker in January.

That's a typical political move that in the grand scheme will accomplish little. Commissioners are too far removed from the majority of employees to see what's happening on the ground floor. That's where the press can step in and help — if the state were willing to let us do our jobs.

Alaska has a long way to go to be transparent, and time and again Alaskans have been given reason not to trust the government to police itself. If nothing changes moving forward, however, it will only be a matter of time before the next scandal is exposed. The National Guard scandal helped Walker win office, but the DOC scandal or another like it will win the election for someone else next time. Replacing commissioners isn't enough to deter such egregious problems. Shining a light on these issues when they first surface is necessary, and that means accepting some bad press now and then.

Nov. 22, 2015

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Little by little, reduced services highlight the state's serious budget problem

An unsettling notice arrived from the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities just before 7 p.m. Thursday. It warned of difficult driving conditions on a 38-mile stretch of the Parks Highway in the area of Broad Pass and southward.

A winter storm had arrived and snow was accumulating on the highway. Driving through the night and the morning was not advised, according to the DOT.

Why? Because the DOT no longer has sufficient funds to plow the highway as usual. This was the language contained in that DOT notice: "Current budget restrictions have limited snowplowing operations on the Parks Highway. Crews will begin clearing roadways tomorrow morning ... "

The Parks Highway is the main north-south highway in Alaska. It is of particular importance to Fairbanks, sitting alone at the northern end of the route and reliant on it for access to Anchorage. In this particular winter incident, it turns out the snowfall was worse than anticipated and the DOT reversed course and brought in crews on overtime to clear the roadway.

But do we really want one of our main highways subjected to reduced snowplowing at any time? The Parks Highway is heavily traveled by tractor-trailers, which spray clouds of new-fallen snow behind them and further obscure visibility. Winter driving on Alaska highways can be difficult in general; reducing the amount of snowplowing only makes it worse.

The DOT announced in late September it was cutting back on snowplowing and winter road maintenance in the face of the state's projected $3.7 billion budget deficit for the current fiscal year. The Legislature had cut the department's funding 11 percent, with most of that having to come in maintenance and operations. The DOT's northern region office eliminated 15 positions, converted 14 full-time positions to seasonal jobs, reduced equipment spending by about $1 million, and cut almost all of its overtime budget.

The result, DOT officials warned, would be reduced and less-timely service.

"This will really impact us when we have storms," the department's northern region spokeswoman said at the time. "We won't have the flexibility to respond in the way we have in the past."

But who or what is to blame for this budget reduction? The easy answer is to point to the price of oil, which has tumbled precipitously and shows little sign of returning to its $100 per barrel levels. The price of a barrel of North Slope crude was $42.04 on Wednesday, down from $75.40 on the same date in 2014 and $101.22 in 2013.

The price of oil isn't to blame, however. The collapse in the price of oil is merely a circumstance that must be handled. Life is full of circumstances to be dealt with, whether for each of us as individuals, for businesses or for governments.

The real answer is DOT has a budget problem because Alaskans have allowed it to have a budget problem.

Certainly the DOT budget, like that of any state department, can be scrutinized for possible waste. But citing the potential for waste as a reason to not provide sufficient funds for essential services can only be done for so many years before the department's budget reaches a point at which there isn't much left to eliminate. Perhaps the DOT is at that point now.

To some extent, the Alaska public is responsible for situations such as the delayed plowing of the Parks Highway and other routes because too many of our political leaders in Juneau have been pilloried for suggesting Alaskans actually pay toward the cost of operating the government that provides the services. A legislator who suggests using some of the earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund to pay for government services gets branded as someone who wants to "raid the permanent fund." That poor legislator then ends up with an election opponent who vows to "protect the permanent fund."

The same goes for candidates who suggest we might have to have a sales tax or a personal income tax and who point out that Alaska simply cannot cut its way to a balanced budget.

So the only way to make Alaskans understand the gravity of the budget situation, apparently, is to let them suffer the reduced services. It isn't just the DOT that is scaling back: For example, the district attorney's office in Barrow has closed and its 800 annual cases have been transferred to the Fairbanks office, and the state courthouse in Fairbanks is expanding its holiday closures.

It's past time for Alaskans to wake up to the seriousness of the budget problem and to listen when those too-few courageous political leaders dare to speak the truth.

Nov. 29, 2015

Peninsula Clarion: Coffee on fish board menu

After years of arguments about fairness, access and influence, it may finally be that what it takes to get a Board of Fisheries meeting on the central Kenai Peninsula is a cup of coffee.

The Alaska Journal of Commerce reported that Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre, Kenai Mayor Pat Porter and Soldotna Mayor Pete Sprague offered the use of facilities here on the central Kenai Peninsula for the fish board's 2017 Upper Cook Inlet meeting. As part of the offer, the mayors included coffee service, which provides coffee, tea and water to meeting attendees. The offer is estimated to save the board $61,288, and the services volunteered by the mayors happen to be things the board is faced with cutting as the state faces a continued budget crunch.

For years, Cook Inlet fishery stakeholders and local and state officials have begged the board to meet on the Kenai Peninsula — the last time it did so was 1999 — but those requests have fallen on deaf ears. Opponents to moving the Upper Cook Inlet meeting, which is held every three years, to the peninsula call Anchorage, the site of the past five meetings, a neutral site. Those here on the peninsula are aware that it is anything but, and limits the ability of people here to participate in a process that sets fishing regulations for commercial and sport fishing in Cook Inlet and the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.

With the expenses incurred over the years by peninsula residents attending meetings in Anchorage, it would be no small irony if it turned out that the final nudge needed to hold a meeting on the peninsula is, in fact, the expense of putting on a meeting.

That said, the last thing we want is for fish board meetings to go to the highest bidder. What we want is fair access to the process for Kenai Peninsula residents, and we don't see any problem with offering the use of a public venue to achieve that goal. But we can also see a need to set limits on the type of services the state is allowed to accept in support of board operations.

We're looking forward further deliberations by the board on the location of the 2017 Upper Cook Inlet meeting, and we hope to see a Kenai Peninsula location as their top choice. We're grateful to the peninsula's elected officials, who continue to support efforts to bring a board meeting to the peninsula.

With that, we have one last question for Board of Fisheries members and potential meeting attendees: How do you take your coffee?

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