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Anchorage tennis flap shows need for transparent state budget

Dermot Cole

Baseball parks appear in the $2.2 billion Alaska capital budget, along with money for hockey rinks, ice fishing and hundreds of other specifics. But there is nothing in the law about spending $10.5 million on new tennis courts in Anchorage. The only evidence of the tennis court appropriation is a misleading backup document kept from the public until early June, nearly two months after the Alaska Legislature adjourned.

Credit this to the secrecy and poor scheduling that marks the way legislators dole out dough for their favorite construction projects in the final hours of the legislative session. Over time, members of both parties perfected the practice of backroom deals, but the Republicans are in power at the moment, which puts them at the controls as the choices begin to get much tougher.

Even with $100-a-barrel oil, the state is running a deficit because of declining oil production and the huge oil tax cut those same legislators approved this year.

Little legislative scrutiny

Shrinking capital budgets are coming and the public deserves a more transparent system that shows budget discipline, an ability to set priorities and creates a trail of accountability. That would be the best insurance against a state law that allegedly funds new tennis courts while not mentioning tennis courts.

The weakness in the system grows out of a long-established habit by legislators of waiting until the final days of the session before deciding on construction projects. This leaves no time for the public to question what is missing or comment on the dozens of projects slipped into the budget at the last minute.

Many projects get little scrutiny, as legislators do not challenge the wisdom of appropriations others want to bestow on their districts.

One state document that reveals this institutional attitude is a legislative budget guide that says when a capital project in a district does not use all the money available, the money is customarily re-appropriated to that district.

“The unwritten rule with regard to capital projects in any particular legislator’s district is ‘hands off my money,’” the guide says. “This is not required by law, but helps maintain civility.”

Backup materials produced by legislators and advocates are used to justify some of the projects added in the final days, but the full details are not available to the public until after the capital budget has been approved. By then, it is too late to correct errors or debate assumptions. That’s what happened with the tennis money.

Expansion of ice arena?

The Senate placed $28.3 million in the capital budget for “Project 80s critical and deferred maintenance,” referring to the many Anchorage public facilities built in the 1980s, including Sullivan Arena, the Performing Arts Center and the Egan Convention Center.

In the state House, Rep. Lindsey Holmes, an Anchorage Republican, asked Rep. Bill Stoltze, who was in charge of the capital budget in that body, to put tennis money into the budget. Holmes did so with the backing of the tennis association and Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan. Part of the tension over this is that the Anchorage Assembly did not ask for tennis courts and that there are other Project 80s buildings in need of maintenance.

In any event, Stoltze increased the Project 80s number for “critical and deferred maintenance” from $28.3 million to $37 million. Since this took place shortly before adjournment, there was no serious review.

Within the text of the backup document, which was not available to the public, was a note that said the tennis courts would be an expansion of the Dempsey Anderson Ice Arena.

Building new courts next to a building is not “deferred and critical maintenance,” but Holmes, Sullivan and the rest of the tennis advocates say the language is close enough. The argument that this backup document shows what the legislators intended is not convincing.

First, many legislators who voted for the budget had no inkling that they were funding tennis courts.

Second, the public was not provided anything but the line in the bill about maintenance.

Much of this could have been avoided by adding three words to the budget, saying the $37 million was for critical and deferred maintenance and tennis courts. But that didn’t happen.

The real issue is not about whether the tennis courts should be funded, but about the appropriate steps to get any project funded by the state. One easy change would be to require a cooling-off period and a public hearing, making all budget amendment information available to the public days before the final vote.

That would serve the state well.

Contact Dermot Cole at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcole