Conservatives Winning The Battle, Losing The War

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Contributed by David Eastman

This week, I was reminded of a photo that appeared in ADN last Thanksgiving of two bull moose locked in combat and frozen in clear ice. If you haven’t seen it, it’s quite a photo. 

During the fight, one of the bulls managed to pierce the skull of the other moose with its antlers. It was a knockout blow at the end of a hard fought battle. The tragedy for the victor was that in his moment of triumph, his antlers were locked in his adversary’s antlers and when his adversary went down in the water, both moose drowned together. It’s the kind of victory no one wants to brag about; when you win the battle, but go on to lose the war.

It is hard for me not to see that battle unfolding this week as I listen to fellow conservatives discuss efforts to reduce the legislature’s budget. By the way, under the governor’s currently proposed budget, the three branches of government breakdown as follows: The Executive Branch ($8.3 billion), The Judicial Branch ($115.6 million) and the Legislative Branch (78 million).

Now if we can learn one thing from human history, it is that government grows. It grows because it wants to. Sometimes it grows simply because it can. And because of this it is important to question every area of government growth and excess. Is the growth reasonable? Does creating or expanding a particular government program better protect the rights and property of Alaskans, or is it simply an example of succumbing yet again to government’s natural desire to be bigger, and once bigger, to stay that way?

Today, many in the legislature (especially those who identify with the governor) find it popular to reduce the funding available to the smallest branch of government. Case in point, I have more than a dozen items that are currently waiting in the queue for the legislature’s attorneys to work on because the legislature’s legal team was recently reduced by five people, and this for the branch of government that America’s founding father’s designed to be the most powerful.

If you want to know how many attorneys work in the state executive branch, I’ll give you a hint: It’s a lot more than the 12 currently working for the entire legislative branch. What happens now when one of the other two branches of government encroaches on the power of the legislative branch by - for example - taking the PFD or ignoring laws that require a governor to propose a balanced budget to the legislature, or by refashioning state law according to policies more pleasing to a majority of lawyers currently serving on the state supreme court (by say, overturning parental notification laws and awarding money to Planned Parenthood)? 

In these types of situations, should they ever happen, how is the legislature to defend the rights of the people? Listening to some of the proposals for additional cuts to the legislature, I’m not even sure that some legislators want us to.

And that’s the thing. For those who support whatever policies a governor is promoting at any given time, there may be no need for a strong legislature (or judiciary) to stand as a check against the power of the executive branch. It can be tempting to cut things you don’t need at the moment, and in conservative parts of the state you may even get votes for doing so. But in further weakening the smallest branch of government, you also increase the temptation for the other two branches of government to expand their influence in the public policy process. And while that expanded influence may be welcome today, what happens when a new candidate is elected governor who uses that power in ways that you find appalling?

Unfortunately, when that happens the legislature may not be in a very good position to stop, or even slow down a governor. My takeaway from all this is to remember that each battle is indeed part of a larger war. We can win the battle of streamlining the legislature’s budget. But if in doing so, we make the strongest branch of government even more powerful, will that victory take us closer to where we want to go as a state, or farther from it? 

I am committed, as a legislator, to reducing the overall size of government. As individuals and families, we are obliged to lives within our means, and the state must do the same. I simply offer one caution as we pursue that effort: Let’s target our efforts so that when we do have victories to celebrate, we don’t have to mourn losing the war for the future of our state at the same time.

Rep. David Eastman is a freshman in the Alaska State House of Representatives, representing rural Mat-Su from the border of Denali National Park to the Wasilla City Limits.