Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- The budget roller coaster ride is continuing for Alaska's ferry system in the Alaska Senate.

This time, a subcommittee that contained both of Southeast's senators was unable to stave off the cuts.

Gov. Bill Walker first proposed cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System, the "road" for numerous coastal and island communities, and the House of Representatives cut even further.

Now, the ferry system's budget has begun working its way through the Senate, where a subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday cut an additional $6 million from the system's $152 million unrestricted general fund budget...

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- With state budgets under stress, lawmakers looking to keep up the spending are searching in new places for money to keep their favorite programs going. In some cases that may mean they'll be spending money that was approved before but hasn't yet been used.

That's called “reappropriation,” or sometimes “clawback,” where legislators take back money that was appropriated in past sessions. In other cases, they're looking at money appropriated for endowment-type funds in which earnings are expected to provide ongoing program funding...

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- The Alaska Legislature on Friday marked its 60th legislative day, making it either two-thirds of the way through the maximum 90-day session put in statute by voters in 2006, or halfway through the 120-day limit called for in the Alaska Constitution.

But no one can say for sure when the Legislature will adjourn.

"I think 90 days is still a target -- everybody's still shooting for it," said Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, the eternally optimistic majority leader in the Senate.

But even Coghill notes while it is possible to complete the Legislature's work on key issues such as the budget, clashes with Gov. Bill Walker on gas line issues and Medicaid expansion could complicated that effort...

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- The U.S. Forest Service's biggest Tongass National Forest timber sale in years, the Big Thorne sale on Prince of Wales Island, has been approved by a federal judge who Friday rejected challenges from environmental groups.

Among the claims of the groups challenging the timber sale were that the Forest Service overestimated the demand for timber from Southeast Alaska and that the Big Thorne sale would harm the Alexander Archipelago wolf and other species that rely on the forest.

But U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline upheld the sale, rejecting the claims of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and nine other groups, brought in two lawsuits he merged for his decision...

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- A public advocacy group has given Alaska an F grade in openness and transparency of government information, but state officials say some of the criticism is not merited.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group and its Alaska affiliate released its latest "Following the Money" report this week, ranking state efforts to show citizens how their money is being spent.

Alaska's Checkbook Online website was state of the art when the transparency website was first introduced by Gov. Sarah Palin, but these days it doesn't measure up, the group said...

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- State reimbursement for much of the cost of Anchorage's new school bonds was thrown into doubt Tuesday when the Senate's Education Committee made retroactive a bill that would eliminate state reimbursement for new bond issues, such as the one voters will decide in April.

"It broke my heart; I've never voted against school bonds," said Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, who said she reluctantly supported the proposal out of fairness to other cities but acknowledged it may threaten the bond election...

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- Saying she had "lost faith in the system," Eagle River Republican Rep. Lora Reinbold this week voted against a $5.4 billion Alaska operating budget brought forth by her Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives.

Now she stands to lose her standing in the Republican-led House majority caucus as well.

But Reinbold says it was something she had to do.

"It was a tough decision. I didn't take it lightly," she said.

In the past, breaking a pledge to vote for the party's budget has meant severe political repercussions, including being booted from a caucus and loss of committee chair positions, committee seats and office staff, all of which help legislators accomplish their agendas...

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- A divided House of Representatives early Friday morning approved the state's proposed $5.4 billion operating budget, with key legislators praising the cuts made to a budget that will likely still require taking more than $3 billion from savings in order to balance at the end of the year.

“We need to continue to reduce the footprint of government,” said Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, at a press conference with Republican leaders Thursday morning. Gattis is a member of the Finance Committee that prepared the budget the full House considered Thursday...

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- School buildings may join school programs in facing budget cuts under legislation being considered in Juneau this week.

But some school advocates are joining budget cutters in saying that current budget deficits mean cuts make sense.

Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Anchorage, co-chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, says the state needs to hold off on paying for new school construction, at least for the next several years.

Senate Bill 64, introduced by her committee, would halt new entries in a state program that reimburses local governments for up to 70 percent of the cost when they issue bonds to build or renovate schools...

Pat Forgey

Public broadcasting a winner in budget battle, while schools, Medicaid struggle

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. 

Pat Forgey