State, local chambers concerned about economy

Saturday, August 26, 2017 - 14:20
  • Curtis Thayer, president of the Alaska Chamber of Commerce, speaks at a Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce forum at the Eagle River Alehouse on August 2, 2017. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • An open sign in front of an Eagle River business on August 2, 2017. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

The president of the Alaska Chamber of Commerce doesn’t want to be pessimistic — but thing’s aren’t looking good.

“I’m saying right now, our future is not that bright,” Curtis Thayer said at an August 2 meeting of the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce at the Eagle River Ale House. “We have high unemployment, we have negative growth in the state of Alaska, we have people leaving Alaska, we have an industry in decline.”

Speaking at the chamber’s bimonthly lunch meeting, Thayer addressed everything from government affairs to economic confidence and the chamber’s current priorities, which range from workers’ compensation reform to resource development on federal lands and repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

“It has nothing to do with any of the bills in Congress right now, but it’s an issue that’s very important to our members,” Thayer said of the health care law repeal.

His presentation – like a legislative update delivered by local elected officials to chamber members two weeks ago – was grim.

According to the results of the most recent annual Chamber-sponsored public opinion survey, Alaskans across the demographic spectrum believe the state is heading in the wrong direction, Thayer said. In 2015, he said, approximately 75 percent of surveyed Alaskans held a good opinion of the state’s economy. This year, only 37 percent believe the same.

“That’s a huge slide in three years on confidence,” Thayer said.

The poll, conducted by Dittman Research and published in March, quizzed respondents on industry perceptions and economic opinions. When it comes to addressing the state’s looming budget deficit, the majority of those surveyed held unfavorable views on a statewide personal income tax, an increased gasoline tax or using some Permanent Fund earnings to pay for state spending. A state sales tax was the only option that earned majority support. Still, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they believed new taxes would have a negative effect on Alaska’s economy.

The survey was indicative of the state’s turmoil, Thayer said.

“I think it really shows kind of one of the reasons why we’ve had so much dysfunction down in Juneau,” he told chamber members.

The Alaska Chamber of Commerce – whose 650 member businesses represent about 100,000 working Alaskans, according to the chamber – was formed before Alaska became a state. From the beginning, Thayer said, the organization was formed to promote a thriving business environment and Alaska commerce. Today, the mission remains unchanged, he said.

The chamber advocates in Juneau and Washington, D.C., communicating with more than 30 local chambers across Alaska and even outside the state, Thayer said. The organization is planning a forum in Sitka this fall and an outreach trip to the Pacific Northwest later this year.

“We have a lot of educating to do with the Seattle chamber about the economy in Alaska and how much it actually affects what they do in Seattle,” the Alaska chamber president said.

At home in Alaska, stability is one of the most valuable commodities the Legislature can provide, Thayer said. Currently, between a shifting oil tax structure and sliding credit rating, stability is scarce and especially coveted, he said. As of June, Alaska’s unemployment rate sat at 7 percent, compared to the 4.5 percent national average, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. In July, the state suffered another credit downgrade. The outlook is negative, according to the financial services firm Moody’s. Economic expectations are growing increasingly cloudy, the state chamber reported.

Locally, businesses are finding creative ways to soldier through the downturn. Some are closing their doors. John Sims, president of the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce, said Thayer’s presentation reflected the local chamber’s own economic experience.

“There’s no question that a lot of our members are concerned about what’s happening,” he said.

Contact Kirsten Swann at [email protected].

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