Budget debate morphs into argument on financial future

Posted: Sunday, March 11, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Debate over the state's operating budget transformed Saturday into a heated argument about the state's financial future, as minority Democrats protested the rejection of dozens of their amendments to increase spending on public safety, prisons and other areas.

As they have in recent years, Democrats on the House Finance Committee tried and failed to restore spending proposed by Gov. Tony Knowles, also a Democrat, that was cut by majority Republicans in budget subcommittees.

As he tried vainly to increase the Department of Public Safety's budget for Alaska State Troopers, veteran Rep. Carl Moses, who rarely speaks in committee except to vote ''yes'' or ''no,'' argued fiercely for more law enforcement in rural areas.

''If we're going to even maintain the quality of life in our great state, let alone improve it, we need public safety and we need to fund it properly,'' said Moses, D-Unalaska. ''Sure there's troopers in Anchorage, but not in the Bush. You go a thousand miles without a trooper.''

Republican Con Bunde of Anchorage, chairman of the subcommittee in charge of the public safety budget, offered the argument used to combat most of the Democrats' amendments -- that the majority was doing the best it could with limited money.

''We are getting a total of eight new sworn officers in the budget,'' Bunde said.

The exchange sparked a lengthy debate over the state's unique financial situation: Alaskans pay no personal taxes to the state and receive an annual check from the $27 billion Alaska Permanent Fund, but the state's general revenue is expected to fall $500 million or more short of its spending level each year for the foreseeable future.

''I think we're derelict in our duty,'' said Moses, whose perennial proposal to impose an income tax is languishing in another committee. ''We're starting to look like a bunch of gutless wonders down here.''

While most lawmakers agree the state needs more revenue, where to find it is problematic because most majority Republicans oppose an income tax and everyone remembers the voters' resounding rejection of a plan floated two years ago to balance the budget by tapping revenue from the Permanent Fund.

''What we need never forget is the source of these revenue streams,'' said Rep. Jim Whitaker, R-Fairbanks, who warned that an income tax could stunt the state's economy.

Committee Co-Chairman Bill Williams, who opposes an income tax while the state hands out money in the form of dividends, recalled the electoral shout of the election on the budget-balancing plan, which more than 80 percent of voters opposed.

''We are acting like we're broke because we had a vote on Sept. 14, 1999,'' said Williams, R-Saxman. ''That kind of scared us here.''

Moses' amendment failed 4-7. In fact, all the amendments Democrats offered Saturday morning failed. The most common vote was 3-8, the minority-majority split on the panel. Several amendments drew 4 votes, with Richard Foster of Nome, the only Democrat in the majority, voting with Moses, John Davies, D-Fairbanks, and Eric Croft, D-Anchorage.

Moses' proposal to spend $1,152,100 on 20 village public safety officers for communities without any local law officer came the closest to passing. It failed 5-5, with Foster and Whitaker voting with the Democrats.

In general the committee stuck with the budget targets set by Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage.

''We are largely attempting a status quo budget,'' Mulder said.

Democrats argued that the targets were arbitrary and didn't allow spending that might pay for itself by generating revenue. Moses argued for eight new fish and wildlife protection officers by saying the fines paid by the violators the officers caught would more than recoup the $1,280,000 cost.

''There's a great need for additional wildlife protection in this state,'' Moses said, noting that commercial fishermen in Bristol Bay use aircraft to spot the sparse patrols that police the lucrative red salmon fishery.

The amendment failed 3-8 after Bunde pointed out that three new officers were included in the budget and questioned the reliability of fines as a revenue source.

''Busting a nonresident fisherman for not having a king tag is not going to generate the kind of revenue we're talking about,'' Bunde said.

The committee did approve a few increases, all proposed by majority Republicans, including:

--$900,000 for the Department of Corrections' community residential centers to cover increased expenses and lost federal money.

--$600,000 in start-up money for the new Anchorage jail.

--$500,000 to replace federal money that had paid for Alaska inmates in private prison beds in Arizona.

--$425,000 for the Department of Natural Resources to increase salaries for some jobs in the Division of Oil and Gas, which has been losing experts to higher-paying employers.

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