Parnell, legislators point fingers; Claims of 'fiscal conservatism' at stake as Alaska spends

Posted: Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Gov. Sean Parnell is predicting lawmakers will expand the budget he sent them, while House leaders who passed a $5.7 billion general fund budget last week are claiming they "tamped down" the governor's spending plans.

But Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, called what's happened so far "politics at its worst" and promised the Senate will fix what the House did.

The House last week cut about $16.4 million from the budget Parnell submitted, or about 0.3 percent. Among the notable cuts were $2 million for pre-kindergarten programs and $6 million for tourist marketing.

Democrats on the House floor last week attempted to restore the education funding, originally cut by Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, in a subcommittee.

On the House floor, she defended the cuts to the third-year of a three-year pre-kindergarten pilot program. She said the state should first improve kindergarten through 12th-grade education before adding new programs.

"This two-year pilot is a duplication of existing services," Wilson said.

Rep. Pete Peterson, D-Anchorage, said adding pre-kindergarten has been shown to improve vocabulary, math skills and graduation rates and result in less crime and less unemployment later in life.

"Studies in other states have shown that money invested in young children's education has yielded extraordinary returns," he said.

The House voted down Peterson's attempt to restore the pre-kindergarten program by 27-11.

Stevens said the Senate would restore education money, first sought by Parnell, to the budget. He blamed political posturing for the education cuts in the House.

"This is all politics, folks wanting to be able to say 'I'm conservative and I cut that budget that's bloated,'" Stevens said.

He suggested House members would quietly support the Senate's restoring the money.

"What I've heard from the House is: 'for God's sakes, save us from what we did,'" Stevens said.

The operating budget is now in the Senate, where a Finance subcommittee headed by Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, is now reviewing the education cuts.

He predicted the money would be restored in the Senate, allowing House members to claim to be fiscal conservatives.

He predicted they'd say publicly "By gosh, I wanted to reduce that money we're spending, but that damn Senate they put it back in."

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, issued a statement after the floor vote saying House leaders "tamped down on state spending, and look forward to the continued discussion of how to slow government growth and reopen Alaska to business and investment."

The budget is likely to be higher than it is now when it is finally adopted. Parnell is still urging the Senate to restore the tourism marketing money the House cut from his proposed budget.

In addition, some House members, including Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, who developed the budget as co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, said a $129 million increase in Medicaid is all but certain, and the budget allows Parnell to go ahead and spend that amount without additional legislative action.

While legislators say Parnell is proposing deficit spending, something that Parnell denies, saying he balanced the budget out of savings, that debate may be moot anyway.

Before the end of the legislative session, new state revenue projections taking into account new, higher oil prices may show more revenue than earlier anticipated.

Legislators are likely to eagerly spend it, Parnell said.

"I betcha money they will work to increase my budget by hundreds of millions of dollars and call it balanced in the end," he said.

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