Marathon of budget testimony begins

Posted: Friday, March 09, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- The annual marathon of public testimony on the state's operating budget began Thursday, with angry, desperate and demanding voices from around Alaska flying through telephone wires into the Capitol to demand more money for programs ranging from ferry service to education.

''Where's the money that all of you promised when you ran for re-election last fall?'' demanded Fred Reeder, president of the Sitka School Board, who argued for more state aid to schools. ''We need funds just to keep the lights on. Please get with it and take care of the kids of Alaska.''

The five-year budget-cutting plan that dominated spending debates in the Republican-controlled Legislature in recent years ended last year, and the tentative budget on the table in the House Finance Committee actually has some increases. But they're obviously not as big as some people would like.

The budgets for state agencies approved by the panel's subcommittees include about $37.4 million in general fund increases compared to the budget for the current fiscal year that ends July 1, according to the Legislative Finance Division. But the budgets contain about $58 million less for those agencies than Gov. Tony Knowles asked for.

While the budget is still very much a work in progress, House Finance Committee Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage, likes to refer to it as a ''status quo'' proposal, with increases limited to areas where the cost of providing services has increased.

''I understand the frustration,'' Mulder said in response to Reeder's demand. ''We're hearing it from a lot of places.'' Mulder defended the education budget, saying it fully pays for the formula laid out in state law to allocate aid to school districts around the state.

Because of declining enrollment and other factors, that formula is expected to require less money next year, and the Department of Education and Early Development is slated for about $6.8 million less than Knowles sought.

Proposals to increase the money in the formula are pending in legislative committees.

''This is something that was created by us and we have a responsibility to fix it,'' said Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage.

Reeder's demand nearly sparked a full-blown debate between Mulder and Croft, but Co-Chairman Bill Williams reined the two in.

''Right now, we're here to listen to the people of the state,'' said Williams, R-Ketchikan.

The subcommittees' budgets include few if any of the sweeping new initiatives Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles sought. Increases in education, child protection, public safety, public health and elsewhere are mostly gone, although some may reappear if bills authorizing new initiatives pass later in the session. However, the deep cuts to existing programs that characterized recent years also were absent.

''There's been a recognition that too much had been done in the last few years in the way of cuts,'' said Annalee McConnell, Knowles' budget director.

McConnell also said the budget shorts some areas that must be paid for by law -- such as state leasing costs and the Office of Public Advocacy -- a move that will simply push the spending into next year's supplemental budget. The Legislature has used similar maneuvers in recent years to make the general fund budget appear smaller.

Dozens of people called in, seeking more money for everything from Head Start preschool programs to village public safety officers. Like Knowles, many callers focused their arguments on the welfare of children.

''In many parts of Alaska, children are being underserved,'' said Margaret O'Neill, a social worker who called in from Craig on Prince of Wales Island to argue for more money for Head Start, social workers and law enforcement, among other things.

Petersburg City Councilman Barry Bracken pleaded for more money for the Alaska Marine Highway, a favored target of budget cutters in recent years.

''The Alaska Marine Highway is the lifeblood of Southeast transportation,'' said Bracken, adding that many Southeast communities are trying to move from timber-based economies to tourism and depend on the ferries to bring in visitors. ''Our region is at a critical economic crossroads.''

Thursday's testimony was mostly from Alaska's smaller communities. Testimony from Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Juneau were scheduled for Friday.

Over the weekend, the Finance Committee is expected to debate amendments to the budget, which could bring in more spending. The spending bills are expected to go before the full House next week.

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