The commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development told the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday that Gov. Frank Murkowski's budget team has spent the first 100 days of the new administration making tough decisions on how to reduce state spending.
Greg O'Claray told the chamber that budget cuts are not easy to make, but that voters elected Murkowski with the idea he would reduce the amount of money the state pulls from the constitutional budget reserve.
"You gave him a charge: Cut the budget and do something with the economy," O'Claray told the chamber. "Those hard decisions had to be made by someone."
O'Claray defended Murkow-ski's proposed budget cuts as a fiscally responsible answer to years of government overspending under previous administrations.
"Being a part of Gov. Murkowski's team is like taking an adventure on the starship Enterprise. This government is definitely going where no man has gone before," he said.
In addition to his remarks, O'Claray made available full-color, 20-page booklets entitled, "The First 100 Days," for the audience to peruse. Contained in the book was a statement from Murkowski saying he is committed to ensuring that the state will not draw more than $400 million from the constitutional budget reserve in the fiscal year 2004 budget.
O'Claray emphasized the fact that the governor is firmly committed not to go beyond the $400 million mark.
"We have to stop this continual outflow of dollars," he said.
Besides the budget cuts, O'Claray said Murkowski also has been hard at work trying to increase the amount of money the state gets for its natural resources. In particular, he said the governor actively has been working on measures to improve the marketability and value of the state's salmon resources.
"The governor has been working really hard focusing on getting the fishing industry back on its feet," O'Claray said.
He relayed that Murkowski has been working to increase the percentage of Alaskans working in the fishing industry as evidence of the governor's commitment to it.
"(Murkowski) said, 'I am not interested in non-Alaskan fishermen, I am not interested in non-Alaskan cannery workers. My prime concern is my constituents,'" O'Claray said.
Following his comments, O'Claray took questions from the audience. The first person to quiz the commissioner was Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Donna Peterson, who said she believes the state needs to reexamine the way it funds education.
She also pointed to an idea included in a transition report to reduce the number of school districts in the state from 53 to between 8 and 14 districts as a cost-saving mechanism.
"One of the things we've run into is the complicated formula system we have for funding education," O'Claray admitted, saying the administration will take a look at changing the way it funds education.
"Maybe there needs to be a whole different refined approach when it comes to funding education," he said, though he did not name any specific changes the governor may be considering.
Concluding his remarks, O'Claray emphasized to the chamber that the budget process requires citizens to be vocal with both criticisms as well as solutions to the state's fiscal situation. He said he is pleased to hear education issues are important on the peninsula, and he intends to pass those concerns on to Murkowski.
"We will carry the message back," he said.
Members of Murkowski's budget committee will be on the central Kenai Peninsula in two presentations Thursday:beginning at noon at Paradisos and also at noon at the North Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, which meets at the North Kenai Baptist Church.
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