Game of Chicken

Last week, the Alaska Legislature’s game of chicken came to an abrupt, yet predictable end.  The vehicles that the house majority and senate majority drove flew at each other at a high rate of speed.  The house democrats drove a rig heavily laden with a PFD restructure, an income tax, new tax regulations for oil companies, and a variety of other add-ons that were attractive to some and frightening to others.  The senate majority drove a lighter, yet still dangerous vehicle. In addition to a PFD restructure, it was also loaded with cuts to education, policy that appeared to benefit oil producers, and hiding under the hood, ironically, was an increase in the motor fuel tax.  The two barreled down the road toward each other while all of Alaska watched apprehensively.

This was not your average game of chicken; the kind where two testosterone-filled young males meet on a rural country road.  No, this was a quite a spectacle.   In the center of the course was a grandstand filled with the business elite and public employee union leadership.  Also in the grandstand seats were lobbyists for the University of Alaska and public school districts throughout the state.  The bleacher seats were filled with state grant recipients and public employees.  All of those sitting had a lot to lose. They were concerned that they might not get the increase in state dollars that they had grown accustomed to receiving every year.  The outcome could mean that they would have to get creative with how they budgeted their money.

The spectators invited to sit were only a small portion of those gathered. Most stood, lining the road.  There were the seniors who live on fixed incomes; the young families with mothers and fathers who work hard for low pay, but manage to provide the basics for their children; those who just graduated from high school trying to scratch together money for college or rent; and those who live in places where economic opportunities are limited.  All of these average, hard-working people had come to rely on one thing over the years. They had counted on a permanent fund dividend check to help pay rent, buy their children school clothes, pay their property taxes, pay their life and automobile insurance policies, or possibly enjoy a family vacation.  Last year, the instigator of this game of chicken vetoed half of that PFD, and they were anxious to see the outcome of this year’s game because it meant a lot more to them collectively than it did to those sitting.

As the two vehicles raced toward each other, engines whining, exhaust spewing out the pipes, it seemed like a collision was inevitable.  Which side would swerve first?  Would there be a head-on collision, sending the state into a government shut-down?  The house majority had expertly prepared their vehicle with a bargaining technique that was a combination of Saul Alinsky tactics and negotiation strategy outlined in President Trump’s, “The Art of the Deal.”  The senate majority was poorly prepared for this game.   They had spent most of their time concerned with what the media would report about the way their vehicle looked.

The cars were seconds away from hitting each other.  There was a silence in the crowd as everyone collectively took a deep breath.  At the last moment, both vehicles swerved.  The house majority just enough to avoid the impact, but the senate majority veered so far to the left that they struck the crowd.  You could hear the sickening crunch of the reduction in this year’s permanent fund dividend check.  Panicked, the crowd tried to flee, but there was nowhere to escape the poor maneuvering by the vehicle that should have been their champion.

In the carnage, you could pick out individuals who had been injured; restaurant workers who were suffering from cuts to their hours because people did not go out to eat as much; seniors who were trying to stop the bleeding from their limited financial reserves; single mothers with broken hearts as they considered how they would make up for their lost income.  However, in the grand stand it was quite a different scene.  There was a smug satisfaction shared by most.  For them it was quite a show, and although they didn’t get everything that they wanted (such as a broad-based tax scheme), it was a start.  As they were leaving, a public employee commented as he pointed at the devastation on the side of the road, “My raise this year will be the amount of that truck driver’s PFD cut.”


Todd Smoldon lives in Willow, Alaska and has been a resident of AK for 30 years.  He earned his BA in economics and Master’s degree in teaching from the University of Alaska-Anchorage and has been teaching high school economics for almost 20 years.

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