Alaska Senate Debates State Operating Budget

The Alaska Senate is moving an operating budget that reduces state spending by $220 million over the previous year.

Debate was ongoing at press time, but APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez joins us for this update.

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Zach: What have been the most significant points of disagreement in the debate?

Alexandra: For the past five hours, Democrats have offered amendment after amendment, but the most meaningful to them have been measures to restore education funding. On Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours before the budget debate started, the Senate Finance committee cut the base student allocation — the money that schools get for every student in a classroom. This comes after a long fight last year to increase education funding, and basically claws that back.

The change was really last minute, and there’s been no chance for public testimony, but lawmakers are saying they’re already hearing a good deal of opposition. There’s also good reason to think the school money is a bargaining chip. Members of the Senate finance committee have said as much, and the House Speaker has already said his caucus doesn’t like it, and will struggle with it when the budget comes back to the House.

Zach: What other amendments have been offered?

Alexandra: So far, we’ve seen nearly 20, and none have been successful. That’s pretty standard during budget proceedings — it’s really a chance for the minority to voice opposition to what’s in the budget.

Beyond education, we’ve seen attempts to restore funding to the ferry system and public broadcasting. An amendment to get rid of pay freezes for public employees was offered. There was also an attempt to pass Medicaid expansion through the budget. While some measures picked up the odd Republican defector, the votes were basically on caucus lines.

Zach: As the Senate was considering the budget, the Department of Revenue released their annual spring report on taxes. What does their forecast look like?

Alexandra: Basically all the work that the Legislature and the governor have done to cut the budget has been erased. The forecast they offered showed that the state is expecting to get $400 million less in revenue for the current year than previously anticipated. Which kind of goes to show that even though some in the Legislature are approaching this as a spending problem, the baseline issue is that Alaska’s income stream is based almost entirely on one highly volatile, non-renewable resource. We have no control over oil prices, and when they drop, it hits us hard.