JUNEAU — The Alaska House advanced a targeted spending bill Wednesday, intended to address the state’s unprecedented food stamps backlog and a shortage of public defenders.
The $8 million budget bill is being fast-tracked through the Legislature. It contains provisions to draw from the $2.3 billion Constitutional Budget Reserve — the state’s main savings account — to spend a maximum of $115 million for unanticipated spending needs for the fiscal year that ends June 30, including over $50 million for last summer’s fire season. The legislation also authorizes a draw from the same account to fill a $246 million deficit for the current fiscal year.
In recent weeks, lawmakers have heard about several critical areas the Dunleavy administration said require additional funding immediately, instead of through the regular budget process.
Deb Etheridge, director of the Division of Public Assistance, said $3.1 million would help the state hire 30 technicians to help address the monthslong food stamps backlog. The Dunleavy administration previously cut more than 100 positions from the public assistance program in 2021, despite warnings about the impacts of inadequate staffing.
The Daily News reported last month that three Stebbins elders were hospitalized for malnutrition as food banks and food pantries across Alaska are strained trying to meet significant demand. The Dunleavy administration announced the next day that $1.7 million was being redirected to stock food pantries and address the food stamps backlog.
The House’s budget bill also contains $3.1 million for the Office of Public Advocacy, in part to contract work done by public defenders. Samantha Cherot, director of the state Public Defender Agency, said that its staffing budget had been exhausted and additional funding was needed immediately.
The Public Defender Agency warned last month that a shortage of attorneys who represent low-income Alaskans meant that it would have to stop accepting new clients who face serious felony charges filed in the Nome and Bethel Superior Courts.
“If we don’t receive this funding rapidly, the case backlog will worsen,” said James Stinson, director of the state Office of Public Advocacy.
[Alaska House committee advances school funding boost short of education advocate demands]
Last year, the Legislature modernized the state’s 40-year-old definition of sexual assault so that it would be a crime to have sex with someone after they withheld or withdrew consent. Previously, force or the threat of force was needed in addition to saying “no” for a sexual assault charge to be filed.
House Bill 325 passed on the final day of the last legislative session without any funding attached. The Dunleavy administration told the Legislature over $3 million was needed to hire defense attorneys — including public defenders — to deal with an anticipated increase of 120 cases related to the new definition of sexual assault.
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson offered a $1.2 million amendment to hire prosecutors to help try the same cases. He said district attorneys’ offices would also need more funding to educate and train prosecutors about the state’s new definition of sexual assault.
Fast-tracked budget bills are often carefully negotiated balancing acts between the governor’s office, the House and Senate. Appropriations bills can be amended to include spending in any area, meaning targeted legislation can expand exponentially. In the parlance of the state Legislature, adding unrelated amendments is to “Christmas tree” a bill, and risks the underlying legislation being voted down.
Josephson said his prosecutor proposal was connected to the provisions already in the bills like “shoelaces are to your shoe.” In a committee hearing, Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, said that he supported additional funding for prosecutors related to sexual assault, but that there was a lot of “skittishness” about adding any more spending to the bill.
Josephson’s amendment was voted down 26-13 on the House floor, with lawmakers there saying his concerns could be addressed through the regular budget process. The bill itself passed 38-1, with Wasilla Republican David Eastman as the only no vote.
To spend from the Constitutional Budget Reserve requires support from three-quarters of lawmakers — a high hurdle that has not been overcome for the budget since 2020, with consistent opposition from members of the former Republican House minority.
Palmer Republican DeLena Johnson, who now manages the operating budget in the House, urged support to spend from savings to address “critical needs” facing Alaska, and to fill the current fiscal year’s deficit.
The Department of Revenue released its latest projections Tuesday, estimating that falling oil prices would lead to a $246 million deficit for the fiscal year that ends June 30.
[Falling oil prices leave Alaska lawmakers with a $925 million revenue hit, affecting budget and PFD]
Rep. Ben Carpenter, a Nikiski Republican, opposed spending from savings to pay for a “bloated” budget approved by the Legislature last year. A bipartisan group of 35 lawmakers supported drawing from savings — GOP Reps. Sarah Vance, Eastman and Carpenter were the only three opposed.
House Bill 79 now heads to the Senate. Sitka Republican Bert Stedman said Tuesday that he expects that legislative chamber will “take action right away” to pass the bill unchanged onto the governor’s desk.