With the state facing a deficit of more than $4 billion, the budget is arguably the most important issue facing the Alaska Legislature this session. The House Finance Committee is now hearing from the public on its cuts, in preparation for any changes it might make to the spending proposal.
Lori: What’s been the public response so far?
Alexandra: The public testimony started yesterday, with people physically present in Juneau first invited to speak, before the committee went to the phones. The scene was kind of a zoo. The committee room was standing room only, and people lined the halls to get in and say their piece. As soon as soon as their two minutes was up, testifiers were shuttled outside the door to make space for others.
On top of the 15 hours of testimony the committee has scheduled, it is also taking written statements, too. So far, the committee has received about 500 pages worth of letters, with plenty more still rolling in.
Lori: What issues have gotten the most response from the public?
Alexandra: It’s often said in the Capitol that every state dollar has its constituency. We’re seeing that maxim play out with these hearings. You have parents and teachers opposing cuts to early education programs, like Best Beginnings and the state pre-kindergarten program. There were deaf men and women who spoke through interpreters about interpreter services being cut, which was pretty striking. Listeners of public radio asked for station funding to be restored. Attorneys and people who have received pro bono representation from Alaska Legal Services spoke against cuts there. The removal of Medicaid expansion from the operating budget has been a touchy issue. People have testified on cuts to the ferry system and the state’s timber program, and more.
One thing that’s been interesting is that you do not really have people calling in to say we need further reductions. Some have acknowledged that the state is in a difficult position, given the multi-billion-dollar deficit and the need to draw from the state’s reserves, but the testifiers are mainly people who want to protect programs that matter to them.
Lori: So, how much have legislators cut from the operating budget so far?
Alexandra: The current version of the budget cuts $240 million over last year. That’s simultaneously a lot of money — and almost nothing at all, when you look at it in context of a deficit that’s more than 10 times that amount.
Because more than half of state operating spending comes from formula programs like school funding and Medicaid, there’s really only $2 billion in agency operations where the Legislature can make direct cuts that don’t require extra legislation. You could wipe out all those agency operations and still not cover the state budget.
Some agencies are feeling the cuts more than others. Three departments — Labor, Military and Veterans Affairs, and Commerce — are all seeing their budgets reduced by more than 30 percent over last year. Meanwhile, the Judiciary and the Department of Public Safety are looking at cuts of one and three percent, respectively.
Lori: How are the governor and the Legislature handling their own budgets?
Alexandra: There’s been an interesting conversation in terms of who is making deeper and more meaningful cuts. Based off the spreadsheets that the House Finance Committee is using, the governor is reducing his budget by 30 percent, and the Legislature is only cutting its budget by three percent over last year.
However, lawmakers and their staff have been quick to note that part of the reason it looks like the governor is cutting so much is that the executive branch doesn’t need to spend money on things like election staffing and the redistricting board this year. They say that once you take out those one-time budget items, the cuts look like they’re closer to eight percent. On top of that, some of the spending on domestic violence programs that used to be in governor’s budget has been shifted to the Department of Public Safety.
All this goes to show how many different ways these numbers can be sliced. Because money can be moved around and because there are so many ways to compare budgets, depending on whether you’re looking at last year’s spending or more recent proposals, people can be looking at the same budget items and describe them in radically different ways.
Lori: What’s the plan with the budget moving forward?
Alexandra: After public testimony is done, the House Finance Committee will start taking amendments. They’re hoping to move the bill out of committee by the end of next week. After that, it’ll go to the floor for a vote, and then be sent over to the Senate, where that body will have the chance to make its own cuts — or restore funding in some places, if they so choose.