JUNEAU -- A legislative committee Tuesday restored most, but not all, of the dramatic budget cuts made to public broadcasting in Alaska, but the Republican-led group mostly rebuffed restoration of numerous other cuts across a wide range of programs.
The Legislature's House Finance Committee began reviewing changes made to Gov. Bill Walker's operating budget during the subcommittee process, and in a few cases Tuesday reversed cuts.
In one politically charged confrontation, committee members objected to further budget reductions sought by Democrats that the sponsors said would reduce state costs by accepting $145 million in federal money to expand Medicaid in Alaska.
But in most cases it took Republican support, such as with the public broadcasting cuts, to restore cuts that appeared to have gone too far.
A cut of $1.7 million to public broadcasting was largely restored, with $1.5 million going back into the budget.
Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, caucuses with the Republicans who lead the Legislature but urged the money be restored, saying his district relies on public broadcasting, as do many others across the state, especially in rural areas.
The Legislature's public hearings last week showed the importance of public broadcasting, he said.
"We heard that time and time again from virtually every corner of the state," he said.
But Rep. Tammy Wilson, R-North Pole, remained opposed.
"At some point we just don't have the money. We're billions of dollars in deficit," she said.
But Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, said that while they were restoring 87 percent of what had been cut earlier, it was still a cut.
"Even the smaller cut here is too much, but in these times we'll have to live with it, and so will they," he said.
The Finance Committee also restored $10 million in the University of Alaska budget but left it with a $25 million cut. Few on either side of the debate were happy with the outcome, but Wilson defended the action.
"I know that sounds like a large amount, but this is less than a 10 percent cut," Wilson said.
Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, called it a "struggle to just put $10 million back in."
Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, noted he was an alumnus but said the budget had to be cut back.
"We can't just keep doing what were doing," he said, adding that the university system wasn't doing enough to work efficiently among its campuses, so budget cuts might encourage more efficient operations.
But Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, said it was still a substantial, and harmful, cut.
"The university has still taken a $25 million cut to its budget instead of a $35 million cut," he said.
Edgmon said the cut follows a cut of $16 million last year, compounding the impact.
"This is still a pretty steep phasing down of staff and curriculum," he said.
Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River, said that this year's cuts are just the start.
"We do face significant budget challenges," he said, calling this year's cut "round one."
The vote to reduce the university budget cut by $10 million passed 8-3, with co-chairs Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, and vice-chair Saddler in support. Opposed were Gattis, Wilson and Pruitt.
The committee also added $700,000 to the ferry system budget, earlier cut by $10 million, but rejected calls for more to be added. But committee members who supported the cuts said they calculated that fuel cost reductions would give the ferries additional help.
Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau, said she wished more could have been restored to the marine highway budget, but most of the $10 million cut remained in place.
"That's a sizable hit," acknowledged Thompson, but he said ferry passenger trips are subsidized by the state on average 70 percent.
Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said people elsewhere in the state travel for free on highways while ferry passengers pay a share of their cost.
"The folks in Southeast actually pay to travel their roads, and their road is the marine highway," he said.
"We're very sensitive to the island communities that used the ferries as their roads," responded Thompson said. But he said drivers pay 80 percent of the cost of the roads with gas tax, tire tax and vehicle rental costs.
Wilson said the system had to take cuts, as does everyone in the state.
"Everybody just has to kind of grin and bear it sometimes," she said.
One way they'll have to bear it is with increased ferry fares, with the committee passing an amendment calling for a 4.5 percent increase in fares, which Munoz said would follow an already planned 4.5 percent increase, for a total 9 percent increase.
"It's been many years since we've had a fare increase, and I think it is appropriate," she said.
The committee also rejected an attempt to target three Department of Labor jobs named specifically in the budget cuts, including a deputy commissioner, public relations person and legislative liaison position.
"Do they need two deputy commissioners?" Wilson asked.
But Guttenberg said the subcommittee cuts appear to be aimed at specific individuals, rather than letting the commissioner decide who is needed in which jobs.
"It appears that we're targeting people, specific people," Guttenberg said.
The committee also rejected multiple Democratic attempts to restore a variety of education funding and programs that were cut from Gov. Walker's budget, often along caucus lines.
The Best Beginnings program that provides books to children was slashed, and legislators said Alaska can no longer afford to do that, though it is in itself a fine program.
Gattis said she bought books for her children, and other parents can as well, but the state couldn't do so for everyone.
"We fund libraries, but we can't fund everything for everybody," she said.
But the committee did restore funding for some job training programs.
The committee considered dozens of budget amendments during a meeting that stretched into the evening.
Pruitt angrily referred to an Alaska Dispatch News news story about questionable credit card purchases made in the Anchorage School District as evidence that schools had enough money.
"We are funding education, and they're not necessarily choosing to use the money where it needs to go," he said.
The operating budget is expected to be considered by the full House of Representatives this week, with additional attempts at amendments likely.
House Finance concluded work on amendments Tuesday. The committee will return Wednesday morning for a vote on moving the bill out of committee.