Lawmakers asking for budget cut suggestions

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2003

Sharp spending cuts proposed in Gov. Frank Murkowski's fiscal year 2004 budget have drawn howls of protest from those whose lives would be impacted by a loss of funding.

Lawmakers certainly are getting an earful, but mostly of the "not-in-my-backyard" anti-cut variety. But if those cuts aren't to be made, where should legislators look to reduce the gap between state revenues and state expenses? Concrete suggestions for alternatives seem hard to come by, and some elected officials are going back home to mine ideas.

Earlier this week, Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, asked for help from his constituents. He wants to hear from them where they think cuts are warranted, if the cuts already on the table don't appeal. By Tuesday, he hadn't had but a few calls and e-mails, but more may be coming in the days ahead, he said.

"There's no real consensus yet. It's mostly 'anything but my program,'" Chenault said.

One caller said schools were getting too much money and wanted the state to focus only on constitutionally mandated programs, he said. Another told him state lawmakers should take a stronger roll against regressive taxes proposed by the governor and consider progressive taxes that don't harm lower- and middle-income Alaskans.

"One said Department of Transportation planners and administrators don't get paid enough," Chenault said, " -- in jest."

Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, said he planned to put a survey in the paper asking constituents for their opinions. It was published in Friday's Peninsula Clarion.

"Most of my constituents say cut them, not me," he said. "That's human nature."

Wagoner questioned some of the governor's proposed cuts when they were first announced, such as ending the Longevity Bonus Program. His skepticism continues.

"There have been some proposed cuts that don't make a lot of sense when you look at it from the narrower perspective of the peninsula," he said.

One such would cut $618,800 of the state's share of funding for five independent living centers around the state, a program that has been largely successful on the peninsula, Wagoner said, adding he worries that if people can't find help there, they'll end up in the far more costly long-term care facilities.

Wagoner said he hasn't heard any different ideas about how to cut the budget, at least not yet.

"Once I get a survey done, we'll be able to tell," he said.

Opinions varied among some former legislative and assembly level lawmakers who spoke to the Clarion, but central to their comments was the lack of a long-range plan in the governor's proposal.

"We tried to do something -- create some kind of fiscal plan," said Drew Scalzi, who lost a bid for re-election on the lower Kenai Peninsula's House District 35 last fall.

Scalzi and others, including the governor's daughter, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, were part of a bipartisan effort to develop a long-range fiscal plan during the 22nd Legislature. That effort was politically risky, Scalzi said, because the plan advocated not only more cuts but revenue generators, including an income tax and use of the Alaska Permanent Fund earnings.

Despite campaign rhetoric that the way to avoid drowning in red ink was to grasp the life ring of natural resource development, Murkowski's budget offered little in the way of new revenues. Instead, it called for cuts, the elimination of whole programs and shifting of duties between departments -- at the expense of environmental protections, some critics charged.

But cutting an already lean budget is the wrong approach, said Ron Drathman, former city manager of Homer and former Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly president. There are good arguments for virtually every state program that exists. Someone needs those services, he said.

"I don't think they should cut any program," he said. "They need to find more revenues to pay for what's there. Then you can start deciding if cuts are needed."

Former Assembly President Tim Navarre agreed it wasn't clear that the administration had a solid fiscal plan and expressed some doubt about whether the administration is in touch with Alaska realities.

Even with the governor's cuts, "there is still a deficit," he said.

Scalzi said he wasn't ready to discount the administration's efforts just yet.

"At least Murkowski has thrown something out there," he said.

Given time, some cuts may be adopted and some moves toward resource development may bring in new revenues, he said.

A big question on all their minds, they said, was just how much real leadership ability there is in the administration and the Legislature. That remains an unproven factor.

Former Speaker of the House Gail Phillips, who is now working as an aide to the governor, declined to suggest alternative budget cuts. But she did offer a bit of insight into what the state is hearing from constituents. She said she has three tongue-in-cheek signs on her desk.

"NIMBY, for Not In My Budget Year, TONY, for Take from the Others Next Year, and CHEEP, for Citizens Hoping Everyone Else Pays," she said.

Tom Boedeker, city manager of Soldotna, couldn't point to anything specific but did say there is too much paperwork and too many government workers handling it. That, he said, leaves too few workers in the field ensuring things are getting done.

The system is in need of streamlining, he said.

How the budget is cut also is important. It can be done badly, Boedeker warned.

"My general reaction is that we have to stop cutting programs back and decide which ones to eliminate," he said. "I don't have a good handle on which ones that should be. We all have our pet peeves."

The state should fully fund those with a high priority, he said, and "accept the fact that some things are not as important as others."

He cautioned, however, that streamlining isn't really streamlining if the state government merely foists off costly programs on local governments.

"It's not streamlining if it's only passing the buck," he said.

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