If Alaska school leaders don’t like Gov. Tony Knowles’ plan for solving the state’s financial problems, they can hop on the internet, play with the budget numbers, and eMail his office with their own proposals.

Supporters are saying that Knowles’ web site shows how government agencies can include community members in making important civic decisions via new technology.

But the web-based budget–which sparked more than 3,300 visitors and more than 100 eMail responses in just a few days–also drew its share of criticism.

Tip the scales

Late in January, Knowles proposed using an income tax and permanent-fund earnings to help pay for state spending. Before the plan even came out, Knowles aides touted it in closed-door meetings with lawmakers and reporters, plugging numbers into a computer spreadsheet projected on a screen.

Now anyone with a computer, the right software and access to a computer can get an online version of that demonstration.

“This will be the first time ever that Alaskans or anyone in the world with an internet connection can dial up Alaska’s budget forecast spreadsheet, download it on their own personal computer, work with the numbers and produce their own plan,” Knowles said.

He also invited the public to eMail their suggestions to the state. “We’re going to let the public tip the scales,” Knowles said.

Low oil prices are expected to cause billion-dollar budget shortfalls that could exhaust the state’s cash reserves in three years on public services, including education. With the spreadsheet, school budget leaders can recalculate the school budget by the rate of inflation, or a percentage rate in addition to enrollment.

Knowles wants to raise $350 million through an income tax and use $4 billion from the permanent fund to beef up the cash reserve. The income tax and income from the larger reserve would balance the budget by 2001, Knowles says.

The formal announcement of the plan prompted demands for the spreadsheet so that budget leaders in the Republican-controlled Legislature could plug in their own assumptions of such variables as oil price, oil production, and the size of the budget.

The Associated Press (AP) reviewed all the eMailed responses and found that residents were split on the income tax. Of the 80 messages the AP deemed credible, 28 rejected and 23 supported some form of a sales tax.

Many others had alternatives of their own. These ranged from creating a seasonal sales tax that would tap tourists for their purchases to establishing a lottery to name the many unnamed mountains and rivers in the state, barring those suggestions that were “degrading, insulting or a cuss word.”

The public spreadsheets ” will be a good tool for us in our caucuses and also a great tool to help educate the public,” said Senate President Drue Pearce, R-Anchorage.

The spreadsheets can be found on the governor’s home page. Comments and balanced budget proposals can be eMailed to the governor’s office at balancedbudget@gov.state.ak.us.

Governor Knowles’ Home Page