Alaska Editorials

Here is a sampling of editorial opinions from Alaska newspapers:

Dec. 3, 2013

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: A small gift for the new year

Alaskans soon will get a little tax break because the state’s relatively good job market has made it sensible to cut the amount we pay for unemployment insurance.

Gov. Sean Parnell announced Monday that the unemployment insurance tax on the combination of the average rate paid by employers and employees would drop by 22 percent, from 3.32 percent this calendar year to 2.59 percent next. That will save Alaskans $89 million, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

This tax cut was made possible because the Legislature passed a bill sponsored by the governor during the session earlier this year. The governor’s legislation allows tax increases to be suspended when Alaska’s unemployment trust fund is solvent and removes restrictions on how far taxes can be cut.

Since the trust fund had a healthy $330 million balance on Sept. 30, the tax cut was a reasonable step. Basically, Alaska’s workers and employers are paying the fund enough to cover its bills because Alaska’s economy is in relatively good shape. That contrasts with other states, who are actually borrowing from the federal government to keep their funds afloat.

According to governor’s office, an employer in Alaska next year will pay an unemployment insurance tax of 1.97 percent on the first $37,400 of an employee’s wages. The rate this year is 2.64 percent. Workers in Alaska next year will pay 0.62 percent, down from 0.68 percent. (Alaska is just one of three states that imposes an unemployment tax on workers in addition to their employers.)

There’s also a federal tax. It’s on the books at 6 percent, but that’s cut to 0.6 percent as long as the state maintains its program up to federal standards, which Alaska does.

The federal-state unemployment insurance program was created back in 1935 to make temporary payments to people who lose their jobs and are looking for work. The payments range from $56 to $370 per week in Alaska, with another $24 for each child, up to three total. The benefits generally last about six months, although they’re sometimes extended.

The states administer the program and state taxes make up about 90 percent of the revenue nationally. Across the country, benefits totaling $74.4 billion went to 9 million people in the most recent federal fiscal year. Taxes fell about $20 billion short of that figure, though, which is why other state funds are in trouble.

Alaska’s fund, fortunately, is not in trouble. It’s healthy, and, when the fund is healthy, there is no reason to keep taxing Alaskans at the same rate just to continue to increase the account.

Dec. 1, 2013

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Address local mental health needs

Sending severely troubled Fairbanks residents to Anchorage isn’t an acceptable choice, yet that’s what has been happening for many years. Without adequate housing in Fairbanks, people have had either to move or find some way to get by here.

Since the reorganization of the largest mental health service provider in Fairbanks in September, services for people with mental illnesses have grown even more limited, so getting by here is getting more difficult.

Moving to Anchorage, often far from family and friends, won’t help people who already have trouble holding their minds together. In fact, it’s likely to exacerbate their difficulties.

A group of Fairbanks nonprofit groups and interested people hope to fix this and other deficiencies in the mental health treatment system. They’re organizing a community meeting at 6 p.m. Dec. 11 in the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly chambers to discuss the difficulties and look for solutions.

Fairbanks has had limited residential treatment options for people for many years, but the closure and reorganization of the nonprofit Fairbanks Community Behavioral Health Center on South Cushman Street brought the issue to a crisis point. The center’s board concluded that it was unable to cover its bills and that it had to file for bankruptcy.

In response, the state transferred its grant funding to a similar Anchorage-based nonprofit, which reopened the center as the Fairbanks Community Mental Health Service. However, the new operators had to limit services to those that pay for themselves. A drop-in center and vocational programs thus disappeared. It doesn’t operate any residential properties.

Now the previous organization’s properties are tied up in bankruptcy proceedings.

This shouldn’t be considered an acceptable situation. Fairbanks needs more residential space for people with severe troubles. It needs a place where people can drop in on an emergency basis when they need some shelter or help.

With luck, the community meeting on Dec. 11 will not only highlight these needs but also begin to identify some ways to address them.

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