JUNEAU -- The state's multibillion-dollar budget deficit could nearly eliminate the Alaska State Troopers' highway patrol unit, with the administration of Gov. Bill Walker proposing to lower spending $3 million by transferring most of the highway troopers to different jobs.
The Department of Public Safety budget, if approved by legislators, would move 16 of the 18 troopers in the highway patrol bureau to vacant general patrol jobs in Anchorage, Wasilla, Fairbanks and Soldotna.
"General patrol, those guys are drowning. They're behind the power curve," Gary Folger, the state's public safety commissioner, said in a committee hearing last week. "So when we take these specialized troopers and put them back in patrol, that is a lifeline."
The department's proposal would leave two highway patrol troopers based in Girdwood, with the transferred troopers doing some of the same work in their new positions. But Folger acknowledged that the change would "come at a cost."
Legislators at last week's hearing -- held by a House subcommittee on public safety -- asked Folger several questions about the proposal but didn't raise any objections. In an interview Monday, one of the members, Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, said he didn't expect the transfers to draw much notice.
"It's a title change," he said, referring to the troopers' new roles. Johnson added: "If next year we start getting blood on the highways, we may have to go back."
The troopers' highway patrol unit was created in its current form around 2009, according its Anchorage-based supervisor, Capt. Randy Hahn.
He said in a phone interview that the bureau originally evolved from a pair of teams that enforced drunken-driving laws in Fairbanks and Palmer. It was entirely funded by the federal government at first, though now the state has to pay about half its cost.
Asked why the public safety department had chosen to cut the highway patrol bureau rather than other areas of its budget, Hahn responded that "the focus of the agency has to be on delivery of those core services that we're responsible for."
General patrol troopers, he added, respond to many calls that involve "life safety issues -- things that if we don't do, somebody's going to get hurt."
"When you're tasked with coming up with things that you think that you can make work, that allow you to continue to function, but focus the resources where they're most needed -- that's where these decisions come from," he said.
The highway patrol troopers' responsibilities include traffic enforcement, highway safety education, and investigating crashes that cause injuries or deaths.
Hahn said the unit is "mobile" and covers "virtually every part of the road system." Its troopers can cover events like the state fair in Palmer, the Mount Marathon race in Seward, a bluegrass festival outside Fairbanks and even some of the peak fishing periods on the Kenai River.
Hahn said the department can't draw an "absolute correlation" between the highway patrol bureau's work and a downward trend in Alaska's number of fatal crashes over the last few years -- with the 51 deaths in 2013 the lowest annual total since at least 1994.
"But we can certainly attribute some of Bureau of Highway Patrol's activities towards assisting in that overall reduction effort," he said.
Jake Metcalfe, executive director of the Public Safety Employees Association, the union that represents the highway patrol troopers, said his group is opposed to the change -- though he said it was also happy to see that the troopers' positions were not being cut entirely.
Metcalfe said the transfers would be "spreading out" the public safety department's ability to apply the highway patrol troopers' specialized training to investigations of crashes.
Folger, the department's commissioner, maintained in last week's hearing that "that skill doesn't go away when you go back to patrol."
"They will still be called upon to do this," Folger said.
Metcalfe said the troopers union had not yet determined whether to fight the transfers or focus its efforts on other areas of the budget.