State budget discussion continues

JUNEAU — The Senate version of the state operating budget includes language that proposes having the lieutenant governor stay at a state-run historic site while in Juneau.


An amendment adopted Tuesday by the Senate Finance Committee says the Legislature wants the Department of Natural Resources to negotiate with the governor’s office to establish the House of Wickersham State Historic Site as lodging for the lieutenant governor when he or she is in the capital. The department manages the home, which it says James Wickersham bought in 1928 and lived in until his death in 1939.

Wickersham was a U.S. District judge and a delegate to the U.S. Congress.

The amendment says the house would remain accessible to the public for tours and special events scheduled by the lieutenant governor and managed within the existing budgets of the lieutenant governor’s office and state Division of Parks & Outdoor Recreation. The amendment, proposed by Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, stems from a recommendation made by a local parks advisory board, with the idea the building will stay better preserved if it has a specific use, according to an Egan aide.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell stays at the Westmark Baranof Hotel while he’s in Juneau at a cost of about $135 a night, plus per diem, his chief of staff, Michelle Toohey, said. Treadwell would be happy to stay at the Wickersham House if it saves money, she said.

Senate Finance advanced its version of the bill Tuesday afternoon. The total size of the Senate package is about $9.9 billion. It is expected to be voted on this week.

Other amendments adopted by the committee include amendments reflecting new bargaining agreements and restoring $37,500 to the Best Beginnings early-childhood program. The education committee plans to meet during the interim to take a closer look at education funding overall, as lawmakers try to get a better handle on what’s working, where any problems are and where greater attention needs to be placed.

Language also was added to the bill that says school districts may not get state aid for K-12 education if, among other things, they refuse to let the Boy Scouts of America use school facilities for meetings if the facilities are available to other non-school community groups. That language was cast as boilerplate, included in past bills.

The proposal did not add in more than $800,000 requested by the governor for a sex trafficking investigative unit. A subcommittee had recommended denying the request, saying three new troopers were not needed for the unit because there hadn’t been a single investigation in the last year. First lady Sandy Parnell had testified before the committee Saturday, asking that the money be included.

The House did not specifically honor that request, either, in the version of the budget it passed but included funding for 15 of the 21 state trooper positions requested, with the idea that the administration would decide where those positions should be based.

Senate Finance Committee co-Chair Pete Kelly said the proposal crafted by the panel was “about as good a bill as we can afford.”

Once the bill passes the Senate, it is expected to go to conference committee, with House and Senate negotiators hammering out differences in their respective versions of the bill.

Legislative leaders have sought to rein in spending amid concerns about declining oil production, a goal shared by Gov. Sean Parnell. Alaska relies heavily on oil revenues and higher prices in recent years have helped to mask the impact of the decline.

An oil tax cut meant to spur production and investment will also cost the state revenue — perhaps up to $875 million next fiscal year alone, under the latest version of the bill — but Parnell has said the state will be able to manage the near-term hit using savings. The state has about $16 billion saved between two reserve funds.

In an interview, Kelly said his committee wanted to keep the overall size below what Parnell proposed but allow for about 1 percent agency growth. The Senate plan is about $61 million less than Parnell proposed, according to the Legislative Finance Division.

Kelly said next year, his intent is for the conversation to revolve around zero growth — “zero means zero,” before going to cuts. Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said he’d eventually like to move toward a model, similar to what Scott Goldsmith, professor emeritus of economics at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, has proposed. Goldsmith has said the state is currently on an unsustainable path and has recommended restricting the rate of spending growth and saving more.

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