Balancing an out-of-whack state budget may be a noble goal, but doing it by axing education spending, undercutting support systems for the poor and disabled, or risking public health by limiting food safety inspections at restaurants is the wrong way to go about it.
Those were just some of the messages often emotionally delivered Wednesday to the Alaska House Finance Committee by several central Kenai Peninsula residents during a teleconference public hearing on the proposed fiscal year 2003 state operating budget plan.
Among the $90.8 million in cuts proposed in the Finance Committee budget is a $6.4 million from the Department of Education and Early Development. The plan also would spend about $47 million less in the Department of Health and Social Services than Gov. Tony Knowles' amended budget.
Virtually to a person, those testifying from the Kenai Legislative Information Office said they'd rather pay taxes than see proposed cuts in program spending.
Mary Miller, of Soldotna, said she thinks the people most vociferously opposed to taxes are those with the most money.
"I'm not sure you hear from those of us who are wage-earners who believe we have a responsibility to the people of our citizenship who are not able to support themselves for one reason or another," she said.
Taxes or other revenue-raising measures should come "way far in front of" budget cuts, she added.
"To cut a budget in education and early development at almost $6.5 million is, in my opinion, shameful," she said.
Roy Anderson, of Kenai, is director of pupil services for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. His son graduated from Kenai Central High School last year.
He said years of cuts have reduced many school programs. The proposed budget, he said, claims to hold education funding steady.
"The budget before you has been characterized as holding K-12 education 'harmless,'" he said, "but does not increase funding for K-12 education."
With operating costs rising, if K-12 funding fails to keep abreast of inflation, the budget can't be said to hold education harmless, he said.
"Revenue measures should be considered before any finalization of the budget allocations," said James Fisher of Soldotna. He decried proposed cuts that he said would abandon food safety inspections, consign 6,000 children to no health maintenance, and reduce fish and game oversight.
Sharon Brower of Kenai is on the Nikiski Middle-Senior High School Site Council. She said 10 years ago many schools had good shops, good welding and carpentry courses, good office skills, business office and home economics, but that all have either been reduced or eliminated in some schools.
"I support an income tax," at the level proposed by Gov. Tony Knowles, she said.
Cindy Wood of Kenai spoke from a wheelchair on behalf of the Disabled Children at Risk program. She said a proposal to cut that program back to $1 million would decrease the amount of care these people receive. She said core services from that program have allowed her to live as independently as she can. Wood said she has as much right to live a good quality life as any other Alaskan. She just needs a little more help.
"Cutting that budget is not going to solve you guys' problem," she said. "You need to think of other avenues that would make it better so these services are not cut."
Joan Schrader of Kenai cited the Alaska Constitution noting the Legislature's duty to provide for the promotion and protection of public health and welfare.
"There's no ifs, ands or buts about it. It's supposed to be done," she said.
She denounced proposed cuts that could limit serums for inoculating children.
Cutting programs serving those with developmental disabilities and the aged "would be a sin," said Lynette Haas, of Soldotna. She said she would be willing to pay a sales tax.
Dave Spence, director of planning and operations for the school district, said he is concerned about the "cavalier approach" of lawmakers toward food service inspections at schools as well as restaurants. The cuts would mean "exposing 10,000 students to undue risk," he said.
He also noted that inspections are an integral part of the qualifications necessary to acquire federal funds.
"I don't want to live in a state where essential services are not provided to populations that are the most vulnerable," said Wini Crosby of Soldotna, who added that she didn't really care how the committee did it, but it was time to stabilize the budget "so we don't have to go through this year after year. It is time for long-range planning," she said.
Committee hearings on the budget continue for the rest of the week. House Finance co-chair Rep. Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage, has said he plans to have the budget before the full House by March 18.
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