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Alaska Democrats' stubborness prolongs budget impasse

  • Author: Mike Chenault
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published May 19, 2015

As we continue to negotiate a budget agreement with the Alaska House Minority Caucus Democrats, it's important to set the record straight.

Some legislators from the minority caucus have called the floor session recess a "vacation." There is nothing further from the truth than this.

Majority caucus members have been back in their districts, attending chambers of commerce meetings, talking with constituents, discussing the issues at hand and more. Our House Finance Committee met last week on the governor's proposed operating budget and this week wrapped up work on the Medicaid expansion bill, House Bill 148.

I applaud the committee for hearing from the Department of Health and Social Services and other departments, asking tough questions and doing their due diligence. The co-chairs, Reps. Steve Thompson and Mark Neuman, made the right -- though, hard -- choice to set the bill aside and continue the process of review and consulting before we make the potentially budget-busting decision to expand our challenged system.

On those budget negotiations, it is fair to say that there's a "my way or the highway" effort by minority caucus Democrats who want all of their favored or pet programs/projects added back into the budget. Minority Democrats will only agree to allow us to access the state's savings account, the Constitutional Budget Reserve Fund (CBR), if we agree to their demands to spend more money, which would draw down our savings by an extra $80 million. Their demands include paying the union cost-of-living allowances, but not exempt employees, ferry money, one-time education funds cut by the governor. In all, they want 26 items funded in a budget that calls for us to already draw about $3.6 billion from our state savings account.

We simply don't agree. We cannot afford to add back every pet priority of the Democrats, who also insist that Medicaid expansion and the Alaska Safe Children's Act (HB44) also be passed before they quit holding us hostage. By the way, the House passed the Alaska Safe Children's Act during the regular session.

We may have to end the special session where we started it: without a three-quarter vote to access the CBR. That means that at some point later in the summer or early in the fall, the government may shut down some services. It's not the outcome for which we are negotiating or are advocating. Unfortunately, the minority Democrats choose to overlook the state's fiscal crisis and hard work done to adjust our budget. The budget is 11 percent smaller than last year's, and more cuts will need to be made next year, not additions for political priorities.

Education funding makes up nearly a third of the budget, as does Medicaid and the Department of Health and Social Services' budget. We cannot keep the same level of unsustainable spending.

We do agree with the minority Democrats on one thing: The Senate went too far; we support the House education funding levels.

Minority Democrat projects may be important to Alaska, but the time is not right. We don't have the money. The oil tax credit argument doesn't ring true, either -- some of the minority Democrats voted to fund the credits they decry when ACES was passed. SB21 replaced ACES and those Cook Inlet small producer tax credits will lapse next year.

Their tactic of tying the CBR vote to all the issues the Democrats hold dear will lead to an increased budget when we have no money and have to tap our savings account. The minority Democrats are willing to see a potential government shutdown at their whim should they choose not to come to the table willing to negotiate, not dictate. We're here, working and willing to listen. We can finish the job, together, but the Democrats' demands need to be more reasonable.

Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, is Speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives. He has served in the House since 2001.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

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