Announcing his budget plan last week, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said his No. 1 priority is to improve public safety. Details within documents released last week show how the governor intends to do that while keeping state spending comparatively flat. It’s a significant shift from his plan four months ago, when he said he intended another year of budget cuts to erase the state deficit.
The governor plans to add 15 state troopers to rural posts and increase civilian staff across the state, budget documents indicate. Increases to the budget of the Department of Corrections, Department of Public Safety and others are being balanced by cuts in other departments.
“We really are aiming to increase the presence in rural Alaska,” Public Safety commissioner Amanda Price said by phone.
She added that the department also intends to fill 24 funded but currently-vacant trooper positions in 2020.
The Department of Public Safety’s budget would grow from $169 million to $182 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1. The state’s operating budget as a whole is proposed to be $4.4 billion, when considering only the portion funded by taxes and the Alaska Permanent Fund. Federal aid and fee-funded programs bring the operating budget up to $9 billion, not including the Permanent Fund Dividend or the state’s capital budget.
An investigation by the Daily News and ProPublica found that one in three Alaska communities have no local law enforcement of any kind. In some cases, villages with no state-funded troopers or Village Public Safety Officers said they resorted to hiring convicted criminals as cops.
Funding for the Village Public Safety Officer program has not changed. Price said further changes to that program are pending the input of a legislative workgroup that is expected to reveal its recommendations in January.
Prison budget increases the most
The budget for the Alaska Department of Corrections, operator of the state’s prison system, rises $52 million to $351.6 million under the governor’s plan. According to budget documents, that increase is being driven by the need to imprison more Alaskans following last year’s repeal of the criminal justice law known as Senate Bill 91.
The budget proposes spending $18.1 million to send prisoners to facilities out of the state. The prison system does not plan to reopen the now-closed Palmer Correctional Center, officials said, and money would be diverted from the Palmer prison’s budget to pay for the out-of-state shipments.
Schools funded at 2017-18 levels
With the expiration of two years of special one-time payments approved by the Alaska Legislature, the state’s per-student funding formula would return to levels last seen in the 2017-2018 school year. Lawmakers approved $20 million extra for the 2018-19 school year and $30 million for the 2019-20 year.
The governor is proposing to fund the WWAMI medical school program and the new pool at Mount Edgcumbe High School in Sitka. Dunleavy proposed to cut WWAMI last year and did veto pool funding.
No additional cuts to Medicaid
Alaska’s Medicaid program, targeted for $160 million in budget cuts by the administration earlier this year, would be funded at $40 million below the fiscal year 2019 figure, according to the governor’s proposal. Other cuts proposed by the governor earlier this year do not show up in his budget for next fiscal year.
Adult public assistance is funded at FY19 levels, as is the state’s senior benefits program. Rate increases will remain at the state’s Pioneer Homes, which will be allowed to collect $5 million more from residents for operations. The Alaska Psychiatric Institute would receive $9.4 million in additional funding. A $7 million federal grant would pay for improved preschool services in the state.
Administratively, the Department of Health and Social Services is planning to spin off the Office of Children’s Services and the Division of Juvenile Justice into a separate division, commissioner Adam Crum said. He said the move is intended to create more precise accountability and management.
Small bump for ferry service
The governor’s proposed budget includes a $3.9 million increase in state funding to the $46 million budget of the Alaska Marine Highway System. The money would be used to provide extra runs to Bellingham, Washington and across the Gulf of Alaska in late summer 2020 and early summer 2021. It would also be used to reduce service gaps in Prince William Sound during winter 2020-21.
The ferry system’s budget also indicates the elimination of many shoreside positions, if the governor’s proposal were to be accepted.
North Slope prosecutor added
Under the governor’s plan, the North Slope Borough will contribute to the funding for a full-time prosecutor in Utqiagvik. Operating an office with two full-time prosecutors and two staff is expected to cost $800,000 per year, and the borough has agreed to pay up to $300,000 per year for each of the next three, the Department of Law said. The state would fund the remainder of the cost.