Alaska Legislature

As they steer away from Dunleavy’s budget, House lawmakers reject plan to ship inmates Outside

JUNEAU — An Alaska House of Representatives budget subcommittee has rejected Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s plan to send up to 500 prison inmates to an out-of-state facility as a cost-cutting move.

Instead, in an example of the way the House of Representatives is drafting an alternative approach to the governor’s plans statewide, the subcommittee is calling for greater use of electronic monitoring and other alternatives to prison. The result: A Department of Corrections budget down to $308.5 million — $5 million less than the governor’s proposal — without prison closures or out-of-state shipments.

Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole and chairwoman of the corrections subcommittee, introduced the plan to the full House Finance Committee Monday as lawmakers in the committee began formally piecing together their alternative state budget. By the end of the week, Alaskans will be able to view that alternative in full.

How different will it be from the governor’s budget?

“Very. Extremely different,” said Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla and a member of the finance committee.

The House Finance Committee’s move comes after a weekend that saw hundreds of Alaskans testify against and for the governor’s budget plan, and in the same week that the governor is taking to the road for a series of presentations about his budget.

“It’s really easy for us, separate in the Capitol from the rest of Alaska, to have these conversations as if it were an abstract math problem,” said Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel. “The reality is, the decisions we’re making about these dollars directly affect Alaskans, and a lot of us saw that this weekend.”

Last month, Dunleavy proposed extensive cuts to the state budget, part of a plan to pay an increased Permanent Fund dividend using the traditional formula in state law, without new taxes or spending from the state’s various savings accounts.

“The subcommittees are, at least in the House, rejecting his cuts — or many of his cuts. In some instances, we’re coming up with our own cuts. But by and large, we are rejecting his cuts,” said Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage and a member of the finance committee.

Take the Department of Corrections budget as an example. The governor had proposed closing Wildwood Correctional Center on the Kenai Peninsula in order to save $6 million. He also proposed eliminating the internal-affairs section known as the Professional Conduct Unit.

The House subcommittee accepted the elimination of the internal-affairs section but rejected the closure of the Kenai prison. The group also is increasing the budget for alternatives to traditional prison — electronic monitoring and community residential centers — to fulfill the demand for prison space that had caused the governor to propose sending inmates to other states.

Josephson is a former prosecutor and said he’s not completely sold on the concept, but “I appreciate Rep. Wilson’s creativity and she’s not closing Wildwood and she’s not shipping prisoners out of state,” he said.

Other budget subcommittees have also taken paths away from the governor’s budget.

In the Department of Transportation budget, the governor had proposed cutting $98 million from the $143 million budget for the Alaska Marine Highway System, according to DOT figures. That large of a reduction would cause state ferries to stop running this fall.

The subcommittee in charge of transportation rejected the cut, ultimately choosing to recommend only $1.2 million in ferry funding reductions.

As a side effect of that choice and other smaller ones, the DOT budget is much larger than proposed by the governor: $630.9 million instead of $533 million.

“The million-dollar question is how are we going to pay for it,” said Rep. Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, R-Wasilla and a member of the finance committee.

A smaller Permanent Fund dividend is likely part of the answer.

Josephson said he’d like to see lawmakers take a different approach and raise taxes, thus allowing them to fund the dividend and services, but there isn’t enough support in the 25-member coalition House majority to take that track.

“Unfortunately, the political winds reflected that there’s just a binary solution, that dividends may be smaller than statutorily authorized,” he said.

With no left or right turns possible in the tug-of-war between dividends and services, lawmakers like Tilton are turning to their calculators.

As a minority member of the subcommittee in charge of the health and social services budget, she watched her counterparts reject the governor’s request for a $2.46 billion health budget in favor of a $3.26 billion option.

“Before we even closed out, it was a $431 reduction from your dividend,” she said, citing a calculation performed by her staff. “If you sit in a subcommittee for two hours and you take away $431 of someone’s PFD, I think that’s big.”

For the next few weeks, those figures will be in flux. At the end of this week, the 11 members of the finance committee will begin considering amendments to the department budgets approved by the subcommittees.

After that, according to the timeline provided by the finance committee’s leadership, the budget proposal will go to the full House, which is expected to spend as much as a week debating and further amending the budget before voting on it.

Asked for her opinion on what will happen during these next two weeks, Rep. Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River and a member of the finance committee, said, “My best guess is that we’ll be a compromise.”

“I think some of the governor’s cuts will remain, but a lot of people have spoken out that they want to see essential services not cut,” she said.