Politics

Alaska lawmakers begin difficult process of reconciling budget cuts

JUNEAU -- A conference committee hashing out differences between House and Senate budgets has cut some money for education and urged pay cuts for public employees, but legislators say they're planning to provide money for the Legislature's spiffy new Anchorage offices and to fight the federal government.

Meanwhile, the legislators say they have yet to decide the biggest budget differences, such as the large gaps in K-12 education funding and public broadcasting proposals.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, a member of the committee, urged it to protect school funding. A Legislative Research report indicates it will take more money to not fall behind, he said.

"The report says that in order to keep even with last year's K-12 funding, we need a modest $149 increase in the base student allocation" -- the standard $5,830 per-student amount school districts receive.

"But right now, the numbers are going in the other direction," he said.

Gara urged the committee, made up of the Legislature's four finance co-chairs and two minority Democrats, to look for additional authority to improve education.

"I'm hoping we can work together and maybe waive the uniform rule and discuss an education number that is acceptable and avoids school cuts," he said.

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He made a similar request for some early learning funding that both the House and Senate cut and therefore wasn't open to consideration by the conference committee.

One program, Best Beginnings, has an as-yet undecided cut, but Gara urged the committee to find a way to restore Parents as Teachers and other preschool programs.

Committee chair Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, was polite but noncommittal.

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, also urged against a cut he said may have been made in error. Legislators trying to cut costs in the criminal justice system cut funding for both prosecutors and court-appointed defense attorneys.

Olson said the Office of Public Advocacy, which provides legal representation for the interests of children in state care, may have taken a cut because of a mistaken belief that it was part of the criminal justice system, Olson said.

"What you are cutting at OPA are attorneys for children and public guardians," he said. He called the cut of $425,000 "very difficult for that agency to absorb," as workers barely have time to meet with children now.

"Those people who are most at risk are the small children; those are the people who need the guardians," he said.

Olson and Gara opposed the cut, while Neuman and Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, and Sens. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, and Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, supported the cut.

The conference committee determining differences between the budgets Tuesday adopted a rare proposal to raise revenue in this year of budget cutting. The committee chose to adopt "intent" language from the Senate that calls for the Alaska Student Loan Corp. to earn a profit on lending money to college students and pay that profit to the state's general fund.

At the same time, it cut the budget for the Alaska Commission on Post-Secondary Education's outreach programs, where it works to promote college attendance and student loans in schools. Legislators said those cuts would help it make a profit.

The committee also adopted intent language suggesting that Gov. Bill Walker should reopen salary negotiations with state worker unions and seek better terms.

Gara opposed that as well, saying the contracts the state wants to change have already been negotiated and approved.

"In the world I come from you don't get a second bite of the apple; you negotiate as hard as you can" and then accept the results, he said.

But the conference committee added money back for the Citizens Advisory Commission on Federal Areas in the Department of Natural Resources budget. It got $288,000 and two staff members sought by the Senate, but which the House had attempted to eliminate.

Olson urged against that funding, saying other state efforts did similar things.

"We cannot afford another year of funding this redundant program," he said.

The committee's four Republicans voted to support the funding, while Olson and Gara voted against it.

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The committee also formally adopted legislative budget amounts for the Anchorage Legislative Information Office, despite Gara saying the state should risk being sued by the landowner in order to reduce its rent from $4.5 million a year to $500,000 if it moves into the state-owned Atwood Building.

"I would take the risk of litigation for that" savings, he said.

Neuman said the Legislative Council, which manages the business of the Legislature, was working on a compromise and needed a year of funding. That compromise might involve a purchase of the building.

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