Crouching grouches caucus calls for cuts and tripwire taxes

Posted: Wednesday, January 30, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- A group of Republican lawmakers want state government and fellow legislators to share in some of the pain that Alaskans will be feeling if new taxes are approved.

Four state House members who call themselves the ''Crouching Grouches Caucus'' want to see any tax increases come with deep cuts in state government.

Legislative salaries would be on the table as well as the elimination of nonessential state services and a plan to curb the growth in state government.

''It's kind of the approach where the great society has grown beyond what everyone can afford,'' said Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, a member of the caucus. ''We are asking our government to repent, to change its mind.''

Alaska faces a $865 million budget deficit this year and another $1.1 billion shortfall in fiscal year 2003. Gov. Tony Knowles has proposed a $7.3 billion budget in the next fiscal year, which he says increases state spending by $180 million.

When Alberta faced similar budget problems, the province made deep cuts in government services, including a 20 percent across-the-board cut in education spending, said Rep. Fred Dyson, a Republican from Eagle River and caucus chairman.

BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. trimmed cost-of-living allowances and travel money for some workers and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. is also cutting staff and expenses.

''What is the Legislature going to do to show the public that there really is a serious crisis?'' the group said in a statement. Other members of the caucus are Rep. Scott Ogan, R-Palmer, and Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage.

The group wants a top-to-bottom appraisal of what services the state should provide before taxes are implemented. Among its suggestions:

-- Cut legislative costs, possibly by shortening sessions or cutting salaries and office costs.

-- Cutting 25 percent from salaries of appointed state workers who earn more than $60,000 per year.

-- Begin cutting or eliminating services such as public broadcasting, parks and recreation, libraries, museums, municipal assistance and revenue sharing, state support for extracurricular school activities.

-- Require governors and department heads to prioritize their budget requests.

-- Limit travel budgets in favor of increased use of teleconferencing and video conferencing.

Dyson said these measures should be explored before lawmakers consider implementing new taxes.

''Right now, we've had largely free state government and we are going to have to get down to how much government are we willing to pay for,'' Dyson said. ''My sense is the population is not willing to pay for the level of government that we have right now.''

Another measure Coghill supports would raise the eligibility requirement for Denali KidCare -- which is 200 percent of the federal poverty level -- to include only those that are in need.

Currently a family of three with an annual income of $36,500 could be eligible for the program. Coghill favors raising that to 150 percent of the poverty level, meaning a family of three with an annual income of more than $27,400 would be ineligible.

No figures were available on Tuesday for how many people would be eliminated from the program. Coghill said he has not yet drafted the bill.

The caucus also favors a plan that would automatically trigger tax increases and budget cuts when state revenues fall to a predetermined level, Dyson said. The group plans to meet soon to draft specific legislation, Dyson said.

None of the plans proposed by the caucus would close the state's $1 billion fiscal gap and new taxes will be necessary, Coghill said.

Critics say the plan is also unrealistic, citing cuts already made by Republicans in the Legislature. While general fund spending in other states has increased since 1996, Alaska has cut such spending by more than 5 percent.

''I think some of this is frankly grandstanding and some of it is stuff to talk about,'' said Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage. Berkowitz is a member of a bipartisan Fiscal Policy Caucus which is considering ways to close the state's budget deficit.

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