Republicans reject minority's streamlined budget increases

Posted: Wednesday, March 14, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Minority Democrats in the House streamlined their many objections to the Republican majority's budget Tuesday, combining dozens of proposed spending increases into a handful of sweeping amendments calling for $31 million more for public safety, education, and other programs.

New formats aside, the results of the debate were much the same as in past years, with the discipline of the GOP caucus winning out over Democrats' pleas for more money, even in politically popular areas.

The tightest votes and fiercest debates came over spending on education.

At one point, during an extended break in debate over an omnibus amendment to add $13.3 million to the University of Alaska and various education programs, Rep. Andrew Halcro, R-Anchorage, explored the possibility of breaking ranks and offering an amendment to his own party's budget to give the university millions more, an idea with bipartisan support.

His suggestion got a cold reception from Majority Leader Jeannette James, who reminded Halcro of majority members' obligation to support the budget.

''You can offer amendments if they don't pass,'' James, R-North Pole, told Halcro severely.

Democrat Joe Hayes of Fairbanks wound up offering the amendment.

''What do we really want for the state of Alaska,'' Hayes asked. ''Do we want folks trained in Alaska? Or do we want people from Texas, Oklahoma or wherever?''

The amendment failed 14-24, with only Halcro and Hugh Fate, R-Fairbanks, joining the minority. Halcro was at a loss to explain its lack of support. The omnibus education amendment also failed 12-26.

''I don't know what happened,'' Halcro said.

House Finance Committee Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder promised his colleagues that the university stood to gain more money from other bills pending in the Legislature and as the budget moved to the Senate and eventually to a joint conference committee.

He offered a similar assurance to combat a bid to increase the state's subsidy for school districts' costs for student transportation.

''Where we are in the budget process right now is the first quarter,'' said Mulder, R-Anchorage, likening the process to a football game.

That prompted a lengthy and contentious debate involving both Republicans and Democrats unhappy with an uncertain future reliant on maneuvering later in the session.

''We wind up playing all these shell games,'' said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage. ''What don't we trust the public to know? Are we worried about the Senate? Let's say so.''

Mulder responded that he was simply referring to a bill introduced in the Senate to provide the university with money from an alternate source.

''I might provide a towel to the minority leader to dry off his lather,'' Mulder said. ''There's nothing secret about it.''

Even Republicans warned Mulder they would hold him to his promise.

''I'm going to be holding my colleagues' feet to the fire,'' said Rep. Lisa Murkowski, R-Anchorage.

The omnibus amendment on public safety included money for 20 new village public safety officers, eight constables in rural communities and nine new Alaska State Troopers. Rep. Mary Kapsner said the money would bring officers to some of the 70 communities with no resident law enforcement officers.

''There are communities with 300, 400, 700 people with no public safety whatsoever,'' said Kapsner, D-Bethel, whose vast Western Alaska district includes many such communities.

Mulder argued that public safety was already being enhanced in the budget, and said Alaska hasn't seen big increases in crime to justify further increases in tight budgetary times.

''We can't afford to have a cop driving by everybody's house every hour of every day,'' said Mulder.

The amendment failed 14-24, with two members of the majority, Richard Foster, D-Nome, and Carl Morgan, R-Aniak, voting with the 12-member minority.

One of the areas where Democrats sought more money was programs to combat alcohol abuse. They made most of their amendments under the condition that the Legislature raise the tax on alcohol enough to pay the tab. Increasing the alcohol tax is considered the most likely source of new revenue that might be approved by the Legislature this year.

Democrats argued that alcohol abuse drives up public safety and prison costs, and urged a $6 million amendment for prevention and treatment programs.

''Let's use an alcohol tax to beat alcohol and we'll have a smaller budget in the future,'' Berkowitz said.

The amendment failed 13-25, with only Bill Hudson, R-Juneau, joining the Democrats.

A final House vote on the budget was expected Wednesday.

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