Knowles: Republican budget cuts go too far

Posted: Tuesday, March 12, 2002

JUNEAU -- A House Republican plan to make deep cuts in state spending goes too far and puts essential state services at risk, Gov. Tony Knowles said.

Alaska State Troopers will be laid off, state ferries will be docked and highway maintenance will go undone under a plan before the House Finance Committee, Knowles said.

''I think if Alaskans take a look at some of the consequences that are in this (budget) that they will speak out,'' Knowles said Monday.

House Republican leaders, vowing to hold the line on spending this year, have imposed $90.8 million in cuts to specific state programs.

Among them are subsistence, the state's food and sanitation inspection program and social services.

The House Finance plan also proposes that agency heads trim another $28 million from their operating expenses to balance state spending.

Legislative leaders said earlier that cutting the state's $2.2 billion general fund budget will be a painful process, and the Knowles administration is beginning to piece together what effects it will have.

Knowles called on Alaskans to speak out against some of the budget cuts now before the House Finance Committee.

Republicans have proposed a budget that spends less than the previous year in an effort to curry support for statewide taxes and other revenue proposals to close the state's budget deficit.

Alaska is expected to have an $865 million shortfall this fiscal year and the state Department of Revenue estimates it will grow to $1.1 billion by next year.

Tax proposals have taken on added importance this year as the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve, which had been used to make up past shortfalls, begins to run out. The state Department of Revenue estimates the $2.3 billion fund will be drained by fiscal year 2005.

''We have an ongoing decline in revenues. That means we cannot continue to do government the way we've been doing it,'' said Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole.

Coghill served on budget subcommittees overseeing the departments of Education and Early Development, Health and Social Services and Natural Resources.

The subcommittee proposed trimming $1 million from the Department of Natural Resources parks budget that Knowles said would force the closure of 28 parks around the state.

Parks would be closed in the Kenai Peninsula, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Southeast Alaska and elsewhere, state officials said.

Deep cuts in Public Safety would force the state to lay off 23 troopers and not fund the avalanche early warning system, Knowles said.

The state Department of Corrections -- which is currently housing 2,900 inmates in a system designed to hold 2,786 -- would have to make about $7.2 million in cuts, said Commissioner Margaret Pugh.

Job cuts along with more frequent use of probation and home detention for inmates may be an alternative to making the cuts, Pugh said.

''It's impossible for the Depart-ment of Corrections to absorb that without doing something major,'' Pugh said.

Knowles has sought an amendment to the state's constitution that would allow Alaska to regain control over federal lands in managing subsistence.

The House plan, however, would begin to eliminate the state's Division of Subsistence and also relinquish state control over Bering Sea crab fisheries.

Knowles wanted a constitutional amendment on the ballot in an effort to end what he calls an ''urban and rural divide'' that has racial undertones affecting Alaska Natives.

He said the proposal to eliminate the state's Division of Subsistence would be a setback in that effort. ''Truly, that's throwing gasoline on the fire,'' he said.

The governor accused House budget leaders of threatening the health and safety of Alaskans through their budget cuts.

The state's Pioneer Homes now have 90 vacancies because of budget constraints, which could grow to 100 under the House plan, Knowles said.

Coghill said the cuts are a starting point in debating the state budget and said ''I think it's premature to say we are going after the health of Alaskans.''

He criticized Knowles for not offering areas in which legislators could make cuts in state spending. House and Senate leaders earlier had asked department heads to prioritize spending for next year's budget to make the job of cutting spending easier.

''I think to make accusations at this point is only going to create a greater divide,'' Coghill said.

The House has scheduled budget hearings for later this week when it returns from break.

House Finance Co-Chair Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage, said he plans to have the budget before the full House by March 18 and then begin debate on major tax proposals.

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