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Legislators call budget cuts significant, but not enough

  • Author: Pat Forgey
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 12, 2015

JUNEAU -- A divided House of Representatives early Friday morning approved the state's proposed $5.4 billion operating budget, with key legislators praising the cuts made to a budget that will likely still require taking more than $3 billion from savings in order to balance at the end of the year.

"We need to continue to reduce the footprint of government," said Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, at a press conference with Republican leaders Thursday morning. Gattis is a member of the Finance Committee that prepared the budget the full House considered Thursday.

Gattis said she would have liked to have been able to cut the budget even more, to as little as the $4.5 billion that retired Institute for Economic and Social Research economist Scott Goldsmith has said can be sustained over the long term.

But Gattis said that such a drastic cut immediately would likely drive the state into a recession, and said the state needed a stepped-down approach.

"I recognize that the budget can't get there in one year without crippling the state's economy," she said.

But fellow Republican Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, said he cuts didn't go far enough, and likened the overspending in the budget to that of President Barack Obama, which she said threatened the nation's future.

She was the lone Republican to vote against the budget bill, which passed 25-14. All other Republicans voted for it as did three rural Democrats, Reps. Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham, Neal Foster of Nome and Bob Herron of Bethel, who caucus with Republicans. Opposing the bill along with Reinbold were Indepenent Rep. Dan Ortiz of Ketchikan and all other Democrats. Rep. Ben Nageak, D-Barrow, was excused.

As hours of budget debate concluded Thursday, several members of the Majority Caucus rose to announce they were voting for the budget, and listed a variety of reasons, including support for the reductions, promises of future cuts or favored programs funded.

None gave another reason: Legislative majority caucuses traditionally require their members to support the budget agreed upon behind closed doors.

Reinbold, the lone dissenting majority member, said she understood there would be consequences for her budget vote. Earlier in the evening she had raised eyebrows when she supported a Democrat-sponsored budget amendment, the only Republican to do so during hours of debate on 20 or more amendments Thursday. Immediately after that vote, House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, leader of the Majority Caucus, called a break and many members left the floor for private discussions.

The budget bill considered by the House Thursday included the $22 million for the University of Alaska, public broadcasting and state ferries that the House Finance Committee restored in a contentious hourslong meeting Tuesday.

The budget was $377 million less than the current year's budget, Gattis said, which she called "quite an accomplishment."

But Democrats sought to reduce state spending even further, by making $6.6 million in cuts that they said would be made up with savings from accepting a $145 million expansion of the federal Medicaid program.

That's been a goal of Gov. Bill Walker, but Republicans who have voiced opposition to the Obamacare provision have eliminated Medicaid expansion from the budget and challenged Walker to introduce a stand-alone bill expanding Medicaid.

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, said that offering health care coverage to more Alaskans through Medicaid was a "moral imperative," but also said it would improve the state's economy as well.

"It brings in $145 million in federal funds that will ripple through this economy," Josephson said.

That could help stave off a recession in Alaska that could come from lower spending due to lower oil prices.

Expanding Medicaid would include 100 percent federal funding in the next fiscal year, and would displace some state general funds as well, providing the savings.

Members of the Democratic-led minority to proposed several amendments with little chance of passage. Many of the amendments focused on education as the minority tried to used the votes to highlight their differences with the Republican-led majority.

House Minority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, urged the Parents-as-Teachers program be reinstated at a cost of $300,000, one of several early learning programs cut by the House Finance Committee.

"Parents-as-Teachers empowers parents," Tuck told fellow legislators, saying that it was only there for those who wanted its services, but could pay huge dividends in future success.

But with the House majority caucus having already decided on its budget priorities, that and other Democratic proposals failed, mostly on caucus-line votes.

After House passage, the operating budget goes to the Senate next week. House members said in previous years the Senate has added money, but that this year it may make additional cuts.

Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, said that despite this year's cuts, which he supported, even more needs to be cut, either by the Senate or the House next year.

Next session, he said, even more will certainly be cut following a legislative interim in which members will delve deeper into budgets and look for money to save. This year, he said, they had only three weeks to do their budget-cutting work.

Lawmakers will make an "effort to come back next year and cut more, and have deeper discussions about things we weren't willing to touch before, about education, about Medicaid," Pruitt said.