Six and a half years ago, Mark Begich began his two terms as Anchorage's mayor. He took over from George Wuerch. The Wuerch administration left the Municipality of Anchorage tens of millions of dollars in debt. The city, its employees and the assembly elected to represent Anchorage residents were at each others' throats. Even though economic times in the lower 48 were still recovering from the combination of the tech bubble burst, 9-11 and continuing loss of manufacturing jobs to overseas locations, Alaska's economy was reasonably strong.
When Mark Begich stepped down a few weeks early, to move to the U.S. senate, the United States was reeling from what has been termed a set of events that brought us closer to reliving the great depression of the 1930s than had any events in 70 years. Yet he left Anchorage's finances in better shape than had his predecessor. Additionally, in his final weeks, he had helped negotiate a long-term labor contract with the Municipality of Anchorage's costliest work element, public safety personnel. Percent of budget-wise, Begich left Anchorage in far better shape than had Wuerch.
When Begich began as Anchorage mayor, he didn't go out and get his minions to rag on Wuerch's job performance. He rolled up his sleeves and re-shaped the way the city served its residents:
It's politically convenient for some to overlook the circumstances I inherited as mayor in July 2003: the largest budget gap in a generation, $33 million.
Instead of making political hay, my administration spent the first six months balancing the budget and the next 5 1/2 years imposing strict financial reforms, with Assembly support.
Then, all but one employee union generously agreed to wage freezes to help balance the budget, which most also agreed to this year when finances got tight.
We stopped paying ongoing expenses with one-time windfalls because it is unsustainable. I notice the new administration is resuming that dangerous practice, using state revenue sharing for local services instead of property tax relief as we did.
We eliminated positions, reorganized government for greater efficiency, collected millions in unpaid fines and refinanced debt to capitalize on lower interest rates.
As a result, Anchorage's bond ratings were upgraded, lowering taxpayer borrowing costs. Voters showed they supported these initiatives when they approved a simplified tax plan in 2005 and two years running approved every bond proposition.
Now that Sullivan has taken over, he's lined up one lackey after another to wring their hands in public about how bad Begich was, compared to almost anybody. This hand-wringing is usually mixed with a full ration of union bashing.
The latest to join the hand wringers on fiscal responsibility have been the editors of the Anchorage Daily News. Let me see if I can get this right:
An entity whose stock was worth more per share than a bottle of 96-point wine when Begich began as mayor, but whose stock is now worth less than a half a can of Old Milwaukee, has pilloried Begich for being "dishonest" about Anchorage finances, and for being fiscally irresponsible. Had Begich run Anchorage like the ADN runs their shop, 2/3 of our schools would be boarded up, half that city's fire departments would have been turned into fundamentalist churches, and the city's police officers would be fleeing for work elsewhere.
While, under Begich, city services expanded in some cases, reformed in others, modernized in more, and were ended in many cases where they weren't needed, all the ADN has to show for those six years is is one pink slip, layoff or early retirement after another for their internal management. While Anchorage built many, durable new schools during those six years, the editors and managers at the ADN now are looking for a renter of the 2/3 of their building that now stands empty, drafty, moldy and dusty, due - in part - to their negligence.
I'm watching today's set of presentations by the incoming class of Freshman Democratic Party U.S. Senators, discussing health care reform cost projection alternatives on C-SPAN. Although I've been very critical about aspects of Begich's governance as Anchorage mayor and as U.S. Senator over the past two years, he has now, as when he was Anchorage mayor, aligned himself with moderates and centrists whenever possible.
While the ADN has been treating sleazy, butt-dialing shakedown artist Bill Starr like some kind of savant, The Bradners' Alaska Legislative Digest has been more realistic:
Bill Starr says we’re in a crisis, but what we really have are rather normal budget problems. Oth- er cities across the country are in substantial crisis, and also so are their parent states. Comparably, Anchorage is in good shape. However, it seems those screaming the loudest are hearing strange voices in the night - all the way from the Washington D.C. “Beltway.” We might remind them that Sen. Mark Begich doesn’t come up for election until 2014. In the meantime the Starr, Ossiander, Coffey tag-team needs to quit whining and do the job they were elected to do.
The Bradners also call these criticisms by the ADN, AM shock jocks and others "the old traditional tools of political escape:
Blame the past administration, blame the labor unions, and if you can blame both, so much the better. We’re also hearing nice short words of attack, such as “misled, deceit, investigate,” etc. This rhetoric is mostly framed as just statements, or questions not intended to be answered. We’re also hearing them repeated, repeated, and repeated. This sounds like campaign politics.
Repeated and repeated - campaign politics? Indeed.
Shannyn Moore wrote about this two full weeks before the ADN figured they had to chime in with the Sullivan gang:
Sure, it’s a guess…but a damn good one. This Friday, Mayor Dan Sullivan will cross the picket line at the ONLY boycotted hotel in Alaska for his “unity” dinner. In May, the Hilton workers overwhelmingly voted to place their hotel under boycott because their employer degrades their quality of life. Make no mistake, the media war being waged against the unions is partisan politics as usual. With all the vitriol against former Mayor, now Senator Mark Begich, I wonder if we aren’t seeing the opening salvo of a future “Sully” run for Senate.
Yesterday, Assemblyman Bill Starr released some serious allegations against Senator Begich. Bill Starr alleges Begich was part of a cover-up conspiracy to put the city in the hole in order to get the union contracts signed. An attorney just released an opinion stating the contracts are invalid. The attorney was hired by Assembly Chair Debbie Ossiander for $5,000; an amount not needing approval by the assembly. He has admitted to not having any expertise in employment or labor union law. Sources say the city has been billed for an additional $12,000. The unions rejected Mayor Sullivan’s proposal to cut their hours.
Did the ADN criticize Sullivan's flagrant union bashing in late September? No.
The criticism that Begich withheld the critical email would have more resonance if more than a couple of its dire predictions turned out to have been true. Part of the reality now, though, is that the stock market has gone up 30% since those concerns were voiced, and that, as the Bradners put it, "The bashers reflect on the rest of the whole assembly, and also put the new mayor and administration in a negative light.
"This may be unavoidable in budget battles, but the new administration needs to get by this and start building a positive agenda."
Update - 1:30 p.m: Linda Kellen has alerted me to KTVA TV's story yesterday which supports Sen. Begich, the Bradners and Progressive Alaska on this. It even goes further in some areas. In the story, assemblyman Starr is even quoted as admitting he had all the information he has complained about not having, but:
"I'm not an accountant. I'm a citizen-based legislator. I'm not paid to do this. That's her job."
What a jerk. I think the ADN had better step up and rectify the misinformation their critical editorial has caused.
Linda Kellen will be discussing this today at 3:00 p.m. on KUDO Radio.
image - Sen. Begich on C-SPAN this morning