House approves budget

Senate expected to offer plan closer to Murkowski's proposal

Posted: Wednesday, April 07, 2004

JUNEAU The House approved a fiscal 2005 operating budget Tuesday that cuts where Gov. Frank Murkowski didn't want to cut, spends more than Senate Republicans wanted to spend and doesn't balance itself.

House lawmakers buoyed about $100 million in education funding hikes with cuts in other areas of state government and a large draw from the state's $1.9 billion Constitutional Budget Reserve.

''We're under the tension of receding income and expanding needs. The tension is there because the need is great,'' said House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole.

Earlier in the session, House Majority Republicans struck a deal with Democrats to pump $84.7 million more into K-12 education along with $15.8 million more for the University of Alaska.

The deal also provided $10 million for construction projects that Democrat lawmakers had sought.

In return, Democrats delivered a budget-balancing vote to access the budget reserve. That issue remains unresolved in the Senate, where GOP leaders balked on trading education increases for Democrat construction projects.

Combined with school spending, the House budget spends about $67 million more than Murkowski had proposed in his earlier request for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

In addition, it would force an estimated $540 million draw from the state's budget reserve to balance spending, according to David Teal, director of the Legislative Finance Division.

Murkowski had said he wouldn't take more than $400 million from the reserve fund that lawmakers use nearly every year to balance state spending.

Also missing from the House budget plan is a way to pay for Alaska's chronic budget defi-cits. Earlier in the session, Mur-kowski called on lawmakers to consider using a portion of the $28 billion Alaska Permanent Fund to help close chronic budget deficits.

The House Finance Com-mittee approved a bill to do that Tuesday along with a constitutional amendment to change the way dividends are calculated.

But leaders in both the House and Senate have said that so far, they don't have enough support for a floor vote to put the issue to voters in November.

The House-approved budget now goes to the Senate, where GOP lawmakers are expected to offer a plan that more closely reflects Murkowski's proposal.

Senate Finance Co-chair Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, said she has not seen the House budget.

House lawmakers also may set off a fight with the administration over cuts they made in the area of prisons, the Attorney General's Office, the Depart-ment of Natural Resources and social services.

The Department of Natural Resources faces a $2 million cut, including a request for an additional air tanker for the summer fire season.

Cuts in the state Department of Law, which is under the attorney general's office, could hurt efforts to prosecute crimes in Bush Alaska and hamper child in need of aid cases.

The Department of Law had been seeking nine new prosecutors, including three to handle child in need of aid cases, said spokesperson Kathryn Daugh-hetee.

House lawmakers approved the child welfare attorneys, but cuts in other areas of the department's budget make it unlikely they will be hired, Daughhetee said.

In the department's criminal division, the majority of its travel is to rural areas of the state, Daughhetee said. House lawmakers cut the department travel budget by more than 20 percent, she said.

House lawmakers also cut staff positions in the Depart-ment of Corrections and made changes to Murkowski's social services spending plan.

The House restored the Adult Safety Action Program, which monitors those convicted of drunk driving, and about half the 20 Public Health Nursing positions slated to be cut.

A day earlier, the House voted to restore about $350,000 from the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation and $1.2 million in funding for public radio and television.

Budget negotiations in the House were unusually cordial. Democrats passed on the annual tradition of offering amendments that fail along party lines but are meant to highlight Republican budget cuts.

In the end, Democrat Reps. Eric Croft and Max Gruenberg, both of Anchorage, Albert Kookesh of Angoon and Carl Moses of Unalaska voted with Republicans on the final budget.

''I voted for the budget because I do believe there are constructive parts in it and more importantly, we made a lot of progress by working with them,'' Croft said.

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