Legislature asks Washington, D.C., for a break

Posted: Friday, May 10, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- The Legislature is asking Congress to let Alaska and other states spend less money on programs like welfare and drug and alcohol treatment.

The House agreed Thursday to go along with the Senate in sending the message to Washington, D.C., despite opponents' arguments that the request might backfire coming from a state so rich it sends out money to its residents instead of taxing them.

The state sends out dividends each year from the Alaska Permanent Fund, its oil wealth savings account. Last year's dividends were $1,850 per resident.

''I'm embarrassed as a legislator sending this to Washington, D.C.,'' said Rep. Andrew Halcro, R-Anchorage. ''I'm sure some of the folks in D.C., are going to get this and say, 'Hey, I have an idea. Can't pay your bills? Stop sending out free money.'''

The Senate Finance Committee sponsored the measure. Finance Co-Chairman Dave Donley, R-Anchorage, said many states are struggling with budget shortfalls as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The measure asks the U.S. Congress to grant a two-year moratorium on federal ''maintenance of effort'' requirements. These are requirements that states maintain a certain level of state spending on some programs that are partly federally funded.

For example, the federal government puts $64 million a year into Alaska's welfare program and requires the state to spend $44 million.

Janet Clarke of the state Department of Health and Social Services said Congress required minimum state contributions when it passed welfare reform laws several years ago so states wouldn't chop their welfare budgets in a ''race to the bottom.''

Halcro and other House members argued Alaska's problem is not federal requirements, but the Legislature's unwillingness to address the state's budget gap.

The House passed a plan last week that called for an income tax and use of Alaska Permanent Fund earnings to help fill a projected budget gap of close to $1 billion next year, but Senate leaders oppose most of the plan.

House members voted 20-18 on Wednesday to strip all the original language from Donley's resolution and send it back to the Senate with a request that the Senate act on a plan to close the budget gap.

The House reversed that action on Thursday, though. Several members pointed out that changing the original language would hurt relations with the Senate.

As co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Donley has considerable power to affect other legislators' priorities, and one of his aides was checking which way members voted.

The House voted 23-14 Thursday to send the message to Washington.

Rep. Jeannette James, R-North Pole, said Alaska was acting on behalf of all states.

''I think we need to be good buddies with the rest of our states and help them out,'' James said.

Donley said Alaska's resolution is not part of a national effort, but said legislators are thinking about working with some other states on the issue.

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