When Gov. Bill Walker introduced his budget this week, he said everyone would find something to dislike about it.
He wasn't wrong.
The $100 million Walker proposes to slice from state spending next year would be felt across Alaska. The cuts range from $2 million in pre-kindergarten grants to a $9 million heating assistance program to $750,000 for public radio to $11,000 that could be saved by no longer paying for cable television in each private room at Juneau's state-run Pioneer Home.
The cuts come as part of Walker's effort to close a $3.5 billion budget deficit, and they're about 2.5 percent of the state's $4 billion agency budgets — less than the current year's 9 percent reductions. They're also not as substantial as Walker's proposals to raise new money for government by levying an income tax and restructuring the Permanent Fund — a move that would cut Alaskans' dividend checks in half.
But in interviews this week, lawmakers, Walker administration officials and others said the new cuts would be deeply felt nonetheless.
"Every cut is more and more difficult," Pat Pitney, Walker's budget director, said in a phone interview Friday. "These are really hard decisions to this point."
The cuts Walker is proposing range from 28 percent for the $30 million commerce department to 4 percent for the $1.2 billion health department to 1.3 percent for Walker's own office budget. In effect, the agencies are cutting about $140 million, not $100 million, because they're being asked to offset an additional $38 million in expenses associated with the proposed natural gas pipeline.
Asked about the planned cut to Walker's office for next year — comparatively lower than the average of 2.5 percent across all agencies — a spokeswoman, Grace Jang, responded by pointing to this year's budget, which cut 11 percent from the governor's executive office.
"He's already minimally staffed," Jang said. "The governor's got to have staff in order to be able to do his work."
A survey of budget details from some of the state's 14 other agencies — laid out in hundreds of pages of documents released Wednesday — shows a wide range of impacts.
The education department's budget proposes to entirely eliminate the state's $2 million grant program for pre-kindergarten — a top priority for some Democratic legislators who fought to protect it when cuts were previously proposed.
In its budget documents, the education department concedes that "evidence overwhelmingly shows" the pre-kindergarten program increases student achievement. But it says the money only serves a small portion of students and can't be maintained when the department's primary responsibility is to local school districts and students in kindergarten through high school.
Informed of the proposed cuts, Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, responded in a text message: "Wow."
"Decades of studies on success in education are clear," he added. "Taking away pre-k from kids increases arrests and crime and decreases job and college opportunity, which is a penny-wise and pound-foolish way to address a budget problem."
The health department's budget would cut $9 million in subsidized heating for low-income Alaskans, the Alaska Affordable Heating Program. The state- and tribal-administered program helps reduce heating costs for people who earn between 151 and 225 percent of the federal poverty level, while a federal program that covers people earning up to 150 percent of the poverty level will remain intact, said Sana Efird, the department's assistant commissioner.
Ralph Andersen, chief executive of the Bristol Bay Native Association — one of the tribal organizations participating in the program — said the cut would be felt "far and wide" across all of rural Alaska.
"You're talking heating homes, keeping families warm — women and children, wives and fathers, grandparents. I think it's a pretty heartless thing to do," he said in a phone interview Friday from Dillingham. Learning of the cut from a reporter, Andersen said he planned to call his state representative, Bryce Edgmon, "as soon as we hang up."
Efird said Walker had asked the state's departments to examine programs created during recent years of high oil revenues, and heating assistance was one. People with the "most need," she added, would still be served by the federal program, though she acknowledged the cut "was not something we wanted to do."
"We're hoping that we are going to start seeing some decreases in those energy costs," she said.
In the state's Department of Administration, proposed cuts would hit public broadcasting — both radio and television — following reductions already put in place this year. Public radio would be especially hard hit, with Walker proposing a $750,000, or 27 percent, reduction that the department says could lead some stations to shut down.
Other cuts in that department would affect public defenders, the state-paid lawyers who represent low-income defendants, and the Office of Public Advocacy. That agency also does legal work for low-income defendants; it advocates for abused and neglected children and investigates claims of financial exploitation of elderly Alaskans as well.
The cuts to the public defenders are about $1.3 million, though some of that could be replaced with fees paid by clients — taken, in some cases, from their Permanent Fund dividends, said Leslie Ridle, deputy administration commissioner.
The public defenders' budget is already below the level "required to meet constitutional obligations," according to the department's budget documents, and unless demands on the agency are reduced, the proposed cuts would "result in caseloads that exceed ethical limits."
Ridle said that the proposed cuts disproportionately affect the public defenders and advocates because their money, more than in other areas of her department's budget, comes from the state's general fund — as opposed to the federal government or payments from other state departments.
"In the past, we've done our best to protect these agencies," Ridle said. Now, she added: "We've run out of that cushion — we're really getting to the bone."
Beyond the big cuts to specific programs, Walker's budget also found smaller efficiencies, like $11,000 in savings that will come from cutting off payments for cable television in each of the Juneau Pioneer Home's private rooms. Elimination of an advisory board for the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, the state's mental hospital, will save another $9,000.
But one department, Corrections, was held largely harmless in the proposed reductions. It proposes to save about $8 million through the expansion of the Medicaid health care program and it will have to find another $2.4 million in its budget to pay for raises that aren't expected to be paid by the Legislature.
Otherwise, the department's budget contains no cuts. Pitney, Walker's budget director, said that was because the corrections commissioner was recently replaced, and audits that have shown the department's staffing level is too low.
And, she added, a justice reform package unveiled this week should save money over the long term — a projected $424 million over the next decade.
Some Republican lawmakers have called for cuts this year that go far steeper than the $100 million Walker is proposing. But Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, who oversees the corrections budget for the Senate Finance Committee, acknowledged that there may not be any more efficiencies to be found in that department.
He hadn't closely reviewed Walker's corrections budget by Friday morning, but based on his work last year, Bishop said: "It's getting about as tight as you can get it."
"But it's another year," he added. "We'll take a look at it again."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing