House Passes Leaner Operating Budget After Debate On Education, Behavioral Health

Debate on the operating budget started in the dark. The lights flickered out, and one legislator reacted by joking if the cause was budget cuts. It turned out that someone had accidentally hit the switch, but the tone had been set. The next year would be a lean one.

Rep. Alan Austerman, a Kodiak Republican who co-chairs the finance committee, said as much while introducing the document on the House floor.

AUSTERMAN: This budget begins a process of slowing the growth of state government.

The specter of declining oil production, and thus declining state revenue, hung over the room. At $9.8 billion, the House operating budget shaves a percentage point off Gov. Sean Parnell’s version and holds spending on state agencies at zero growth.

It took more than four hours for the House to pass the bill. Democrats introduced amendment after amendment, nine in total. Some were big-ticket items, like one to increase school funding by $240 million over the next three years as a way of combating staff cuts. Some focused just on trying to restore funding that had initially been included in the governor’s budget for things like pre-kindergarten education and behavioral health. Each one failed.

Without the numbers to get any of their changes through, the nine Democrats in attendance used the session as a way of showing how they would like state money to be spent.

“The budget’s a moral document, and it speaks to this legislature’s priorities,” said Rep. Scott Kawasaki of Fairbanks. “It speaks to our values. It speaks to this legislature’s common vision for Alaska.”

They argued that their amendments would save the state money in the long run. On the subject of early education, they cited studies that more funding for programs like Parents as Teachers would mean less money spent on remediation for students down the road. One legislator pushed for increasing funding for therapeutic courts by talking about how they reduce criminal recidivism all while drawing a comparison to the film version of Les Miserables.

Rep. Les Gara, of Anchorage, also pointed out that in total, the money that the minority caucus wanted to add to the document was still under the governor’s target.

“This disagreement is about one percent,” said Gara. “With the Democratic amendments that you heard today, we would have had a budget — if they passed — less than the one percent budget growth the governor proposed. A smaller budget than what the governor proposed.”

But the bottom line for the majority caucus was that looking ahead, the state just won’t have the money. Rep. Mark Neuman, a Republican from Big Lake, described the cuts as painful but necessary.

“There’s nobody who wants to cut funding to kids that are disabled, mentally handicapped, to seniors,” said Neuman. “Nobody wants to do that. But it’s going to get even worse.”

The operating budget ultimately passed on a 29-8 vote, with all but one Democrat voting against it. It will now move on to the Senate.

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