JUNEAU — An Alaska Senate subcommittee this week denied a request by Gov. Bill Walker to boost state spending by nearly $4 million for rural law enforcement and other public safety programs.
The subcommittee, chaired by Soldotna Republican Sen. Peter Micciche, rejected a half-dozen proposals that Walker included in his "public safety action plan" — the administration's response to a recent public outcry over crime.
Among the rejected ideas was budgeting an extra $2 million meant to help boost state troopers' profile in rural villages, some of which lack a permanent police presence. The subcommittee also denied a $335,000 request to hire two new pilots to support troopers in rural Alaska, and a $600,000 request to create a new records and statistics unit within the Department of Public Safety.
Micciche, in an interview, said his subcommittee's budget proposal comes with an "asterisk" and could ultimately be adjusted, especially since the House hasn't yet passed its own state spending plan for the Senate to consider.
And, he said, the problems that Walker's plan aims to fix could be cured by a separate proposal he expects to offer later in the budget process — one to boost salaries for state troopers to help with recruitment and retention.
Walker's administration, Micciche said, "made it clear that their hiring and retention issues were their No. 1 priority."
"You can't enforce crime without state troopers in rural Alaska," he said.
A spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, which proposed the spending increases, said the Walker administration is waiting for the rest of the budget process to play out. The subcommittee's budget must still be approved by the Senate Finance Committee and full Senate, then be reconciled with a House proposal that will likely include many of the Walker administration's priorities.
"Everything we submitted in this budget was in response to public concern," said the spokesman, Jonathon Taylor.
Lawmakers have debated for the past six months how to respond to increases in reported crimes statewide and in Anchorage — dating back to a special session late last year in which the Legislature, at Walker's request, toughened a wide range of criminal sentences.
During that special session, Walker's administration also introduced his public safety action plan — a package of ideas assembled by multiple state agencies in response to increases in both violent and non-violent crime. Its main goals included addressing the state's epidemic of abuse of addictive opioid painkillers, as well as improving rural villages' access to law enforcement.
Dozens of Alaska villages aren't connected to the road system and, in some cases, face long waits before law enforcement can respond to reports of serious crime. In the 500-person village of Marshall, in Southwest Alaska, five young men have begun making citizens arrests, while other residents organize lockdowns using VHF radios, the regional public radio station, KYUK, reported this week.
At the start of the legislative session in January, Walker's new budget proposal included a $34 million boost and 20 new jobs for public safety — in spite of the state's massive deficit. Those jobs included prosecutors at the Department of Law as well as positions in the Department of Public Safety's budget.
The largely-Democratic House majority accepted many of the Walker administration's public safety proposals in its own subcommittee process, though it also denied about one-third of the $2 million request for rural policing.
The mostly-Republican Senate majority, which has favored deeper spending cuts in response to the state's deficit, is still early in its process of assembling its own budget proposal. Micciche's subcommittee is among more than a dozen in the Senate that are responsible for setting agency spending levels, and it's among the first to release its proposals.
While the Walker administration's rejected requests add up to less than $4 million — a tiny fraction of Alaska's deficit of more than $2 billion — Micciche said there are "literally hundreds of requests that are small."
"Add hundreds of $4 million requests and you come up with $400 million that we don't currently have," he said. "We're doing our best to prioritize services and keep costs down to manage a budget that many believe remains much too large."