EDITORIAL: When Alaska looks back on this moment, will it be with pride or regret?

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Mar. 4—When Sen. Lisa Murkowski addressed the Alaska Legislature on Feb. 22, she did something unusual: She offered advice. And not just advice — counsel that oscillated between a plea, a warning and an admonition, urging legislators to not squander opportunities that may not come along again for a generation, if ever.

Alaska's senior U.S. senator is usually much more reserved in her comments, and not just because she respects the different lanes in which Alaska's congressional delegation and its Legislature operate. She was, after all, once a member of the Legislature, and she's well aware that legislators often don't take kindly to being told what to do. But Murkowski also knows when not to mince words. Born in Alaska two years before statehood, she has witnessed all of Alaska's history as a state, and her perspective on the state's trajectory is uniquely well-informed. When she says we've got a structural problem (or more than one) to deal with, she isn't just blowing smoke. And legislators would be wise to listen.

The primary fundamental issue Murkowski highlighted was out-migration, the southbound flow of residents that has contributed to net population loss over the past several years. This past week, we got worse news yet: Of those who are leaving, the vast majority are the young and middle-aged Alaskans our state needs most to chart its course in the next several decades. From 2021 to 2022 alone, Alaska lost 4,300 working-age residents, driven both by the state's weak economy and deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic. If we are to find our way to prosperity in an era when oil tax revenues no longer provide the support for our state's budget that they once did, growth in new industries — and the workers to fill those jobs — are essential.

This is a crucial moment in our state's history, a reality that Murkowski acknowledges and urged legislators to see too. At a budget crossroads and without a clear economic driver to pick up the slack of an aging oil economy, Alaska needs to act or be resigned to the role many others see for us — as a resource colony that exports its wealth for the benefit of others. Simultaneously, we're experiencing a historic influx of federal spending on infrastructure that could help jumpstart new business and economic opportunities, if our leaders act wisely.

We're going to look back on this moment in 10 or 20 years, when the die for Alaska's future has been cast, and we will either praise our leaders for the foresight to prepare us to meet the moment or condemn them for their shortsightedness in the face of a clear crisis.

"If we give up, if we stop dreaming, if we stop pushing the big things just because we know somebody is going to object or litigate, we're going to dry up and blow away. That's not the Alaskan spirit," Murkowski said in a question-and-answer session following her speech. "Maybe I overstepped a little bit with the Legislature today. I generally do not try to tell them how to do their job, but I challenged them. We have stalled out on our big dreams, on our big visions."

Murkowski is right. We can't afford for our representatives to waste the vast majority of the legislative session quibbling over the amount of the Permanent Fund dividend, or mired in endless hearings trying to fight culture wars on the state's dime. Now is the time to be swinging for the fences.

We should all hope that the members of the Legislature have the good sense to recognize Murkowski knows what she's talking about — and to shelve their own egos in the name of moving Alaska forward.