Legislative inaction draws public's ire

Alaskans unleashed a month's worth of pent-up opinions on their state legislators Friday, giving them an earful about what they think has happened since the last time a legislative committee heard public testimony.

"Shame on this legislative body," said George Pierce of Kasilof.

Members of the House Finance Committee, which held the hearing at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office, other LIOs around the state, and by teleconference, faced strong criticism for what they've done, and even more so for what they haven't done.

The Legislature is now in its second special session after adjourning the first, which had been called by the governor. The main business of lawmakers has been to pass a funded budget, which they failed to do in their regular session even when they went beyond their 90-day limit. The Legislature has also declined to consider Medicaid expansion or Erin's Law, an effort geared toward preventing sexual abuse of children.

Pierce told the legislators that their inability to get the job done created uncertainty and doubt. Certainty was very important when oil companies wanted it, he said. Now, lack of stability may threaten things like getting the state a gas line.

"Who would do business with you? You can't even pass a budget," he said.

And he had one more admonition, repeated by others following this week's revelation that some legislators were considering including Permanent Fund earnings as part of their budget solution.


"Keep your hands off the Permanent Fund," he said.

School funding appeared to be the No. 1 concern among the 84 people who spoke during three hours of testimony, with most demanding more spending and many also urging a rapid decision so schools can set their budgets and hire teachers.

"We urge this body to pass a fully funded budget to provide for certainty in this upcoming school year," said Andi Story of Juneau, president of the Alaska Association of School Boards.

A few, though, said school budgets were adequate or needed to be cut and urged the legislators to hold firm on their cuts to things such as schools and public employee wages.

"We admire the legislators who have stood strong and begun the effort," said Catherine Hicks.

But Vince Beltrami, president of the AFL-CIO of Alaska, defended the public employees, an important part of his membership, saying the $18 million in contracted wage increases they're trying to prevent from being cut are a very small part of the state's total budget.

He called that amount "little more than a pimple on the backside of an elephant. Or a donkey. I don't want to be too partisan," he said.

Ross Mullins of Cordova urged the legislative leadership to negotiate with minority House Democrats to get the votes necessary to use money from the Constitutional Budget Reserve to balance the budget.

"Their demands are not outrageous, it's just shifting money around," he said.

While use of the Permanent Fund in any manner was called a "raid" on the fund, the CBR wasn't viewed that way.

"Yes, revenue is down dramatically this year; that is what our reserves are for," said Deena Mitchell, a parent who urged use of that fund for schools.

Jeremy Price of Americans For Prosperity in Alaska said the state could learn to live with less government spending.

"After a few years things adjust and people kind of get used to reduced spending," he said.

Medicaid expansion continued get strong support from the public, despite the committee saying in special session it would not move an expansion bill to the full House for a vote.

Some Alaskans said they didn't believe the reasons the Republican-led committee gave when it warned of problems that could come from expansion of a Medicaid system they said was broken and that reforms were needed first.

Martha Moore said from Juneau that she didn't trust the legislators who made that reform argument, even though it sounded good.

"The reasons for being against it have more to do with national politics and ideology than it does with what's good for Alaska," Moore said. "It's really just code for saying, 'I'm against it and I'll say anything to delay or scuttle it.' "


Steve Gibson of Homer didn't accept the committee's arguments either.

"Medicaid expansion hasn't gotten any serious response from you guys at all. The reasons you put forth for not investigating it have been phony. I think they've been trumped up," he said. "The Department of Health and Social Services has exhibited the fact that the system is not in great need of repair."

There were calls for additional social workers who would assist with foster child placement. Money spent there would actually reduce state costs, said Amanda Metivier, a former foster child who is now the executive director of the nonprofit Facing Foster Care in Alaska.

"We could be saving money on the back side and ensuring more children are placed in permanent families if we had more workers to do the work," she said.

Erin's Law also got strong support and much criticism targeted a recent Senate Education Committee rewrite of the bill that removed its original intent and added unrelated provisions.

The bill originally required schools to provide age-appropriate lessons on recognizing and reporting sexual abuse, but that's now optional.

That rewrite "takes a pro-sexual-assault stance," said Tara Schmidt of Homer, who gave tearful testimony about a close friend who had been molested over a period of many years as a child.

"If just one person had told her it was OK to share that kind of thing, maybe it wouldn't have gone on for as long as it did," she said.