Sen. Gardner: Lawmakers need committee to vet budget bills

Senate Minority Leader Berta Gardner introduced legislation yesterday to create a permanent Ways and Means committee in the Senate. It’s a companion to a bill introduced by Rep. Sam Kito, a Democrat from Juneau, in the House earlier this week.

Sen. Berta Gardner. (Photo by Josh Edge, APRN - Anchorage)
Sen. Berta Gardner. (Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

I spoke with Gardner as part of a series of conversations with Legislative leaders this week. She says the committee would provide a forum where legislators can understand the costs and the benefits of any proposal to address the budget deficit:

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GARDNER: Whether there are new revenue, taxes or cuts because I think a lot of us lack the information to really make informed votes. And the Finance Committee, where normally this kind of discussion goes, is already overwhelmed. I mean, almost every bill goes through there, and things get bottlenecked and it also… the finance committees are not a forum for all legislators to participate. And we would like to broaden that discussion so that the committee could focus exclusively on new revenue and cuts, and more people can be actively engaged and asking questions and studying the issues.

TOWNSEND: Well… Lawmakers have a lot of work this session in a short amount of time. Is there any concern that adding the committee might make the process more cumbersome?

GARDNER: Well not necessarily because our primary obligation in this session clearly is this issue, and if it means we can’t get to other things in other committees, well so be it. There is nothing more important, more urgent, in this unprecedented situation in which we find ourselves. We hear people comparing it to what happened in the ’80s. It’s nothing like the ’80s. In the ’80s, all that oil was still in the ground and access to it was right on the horizon. That’s not the case now. It’s a deep, deep, hole and the best we can do in terms of new revenue from our resources is a drop in the bucket, if you’ll pardon the expression, compared to what we need in a $3.5 or $4 billion dollar hole that we’re in.

TOWNSEND: Last year’s session was contentious. Are you hopeful that Democrats, Republicans and the Governor can have a better working relationship this year?

GARDNER: I am. I think everybody last year learned a lot. The majority of Republicans on the House side, I think, were particularly in a tough place because they weren’t used to having to negotiate with the minority and kinda didn’t know how. We have a new governor who was getting his feet under him, and he had very little history in this building. So things have been a little awkward and inefficient, and people stepped on each other’s toes at times and I don’t think there was any malice or anything intended. But we’re all learning how to deal with each other and work with each other. Beyond that, I am greatly bolstered by the way the special session in October went, and I’ve been through a lot of special sessions, and that is the first time I felt that people came down not locked into place. I mean, it was a really good process and people came together, and in the end it was overwhelming support. So I like that, and it shows me that we can work together and let go of things when we want to, or need to or see a good reason to. And there’s never a better reason than what we’re looking at right now.

TOWNSEND: Will you support tapping the Permanent Fund earnings?

GARDNER: I don’t want to say that I would never do that, but everything has to be part of a package. Under what conditions? This’ll be a discussion that we all have to have. And I understand, according to the Rasmussen Foundation poll, there is broad support for doing that in the public, but doing that to what end? Do we have a sustainable thing? Once we start getting into using the Fund itself, it’s almost like a license to keep going, and we have to make other hard decisions.

TOWNSEND: Are there taxes that you would support or could support?

GARDNER: I think that, in the end, if we manage to get to a sustainable plan, we will all be elated and no one will be really happy. And that’s true for all of us, and it’s just going to be a long process. I think we need to be talking with each other and willing to listen and willing to consider what other people want to.

Berta Gardner is Senate minority leader.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori