Volume 1, number 9, September 1999
What Does "No" Mean?
The overwhelming September 14 "No" advisory vote on tapping Permanent Fund earnings to help fund Alaska state government sends a strong message to the legislature and the governor’s office. But what is the message? Is it a call to cut government, a call to enact taxes, a hands-off-the-Permanent-Fund-warning, or an expression of profound distrust of elected officials? The answer is a bit of "Yes" to all. Yet on a more fundamental level the vote—and the fact that the issue was even on the ballot—evidence widespread recognition of this year’s failure of our representative government.
It has happened before. In 1947 the Alaska legislature passed a budget of $10 million for the biennium but provided for only revenues of $6 million. Ernest Gruening, then governor, said, "[This action] in my view, came pretty close to being a collapse of responsible government." The people of Alaska thought so too, and only one of eight senators up for election survived the 1948 balloting: Republican John Butrovich of Fairbanks, an outspoken proponent of balancing the budget through fair and adequate taxation.
Even though the Democrats controlled the 1949 legislature, they made Butrovich chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. Under his and Governor Gruening’s leadership, the legislature plunged ahead. The first two days of the session saw the introduction of bills to establish income and property taxes. By the time the legislature closed, Alaska had an income tax, a uniform business-license tax, a tobacco tax, augmented fish trap license tax, and increased fisherman’s license taxes. The 1949 Legislature was the most effective one Alaska has ever had—and probably the most responsible even to the present day.
Does the overwhelming "No" vote on September 14 signal that history might repeat itself? Will the voters throw the scamps out in the next election, or is it possible that before this happens our elected officials will hunker down and do the job they are supposed to do? The path through the wilds of Juneau is there for them to follow. John Butrovich blazed it fifty years ago.