Knowles wants $9.2 million to expand Smart Start

Posted: Friday, December 14, 2001

Gov. Tony Knowles will ask the Legislature for $9.2 million in new state spending for a broad range of children's initiatives to be added to his proposed fiscal 2003 budget.

The Democrat governor outlined those initiatives at West High School in Anchorage on Thursday where Knowles gave an annual speech he calls the State of the Child Address.

Calling smoking the leading cause of preventable deaths in Alaska -- responsible for 500 deaths a year -- Knowles said he wants to double spending on anti-smoking programs aimed at teens.

In the speech, he told 1,200 students and others gathered there that buying a pack of cigarettes each day will cost about as much as a Permanent Fund dividend check. This year's dividend was $1,850.

''Not only do those tobacco bigwigs lie to you and destroy your life, they also steal your dividend,'' Knowles said.

The administration proposes adding $4.1 million from the state's share of the Tobacco Settlement money on prevention and cessation programs, bringing state spending on such programs to $7.4 million.

Alaska also leads the nation in suicide, with 23.7 deaths per 100,000 people, and the rate among Native teens is 20 times the national average, Knowles said. The plan would put aside $500,000 to provide 35 counselors to provide community training, intervention and referrals.

Other highlights include:

-- Spending $4.9 million for child protection services, including 5 new Alaska State Troopers to investigate child abuse complaints within 24 hours and 13 juvenile and adult probation officers.

-- Spending $500,000 to expand Head Start and another $100,000 for early childhood literacy programs.

-- Spending $1.2 million for alcohol treatment for women with children and $1.3 million for teen alcohol and inhalant abuse programs. Knowles said 61 women are on a waiting list to enter alcohol treatment with their children.

-- Increase the per diem for foster parents by $3.02 to $25.36 per day, spend $750,000 on family visitation centers for foster children in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Kenai, Juneau, Bethel and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Another $60,000 would create a pilot program in Anchorage to locate relatives of children in state custody.

Overall, the package proposes spending $17.3 million. It includes $2.55 million in federal funds and $5.6 million in restricted state spending and from other sources.

It would greatly expand Knowles' Smart Start initiative begun in 1997.

But like other programs offered up by Knowles, who is in his last year in office, it offers little guidance on how to pay for the programs, said a top Republican leader.

The governor unveils his fiscal 2003 budget on Friday in which he is expected to ask for increases in education, public safety, a $100 million anti-terrorism package and more in overseeing the state's oil and gas industry.

The request comes as the GOP-controlled Legislature wrestles with how to close a $1 billion hole in the state budget. Senate Majority Leader Loren Leman, R-Anchorage, called the Knowles plan laudable but unaffordable.

''It's hard to take this governor very seriously when he proposes increases, not only here but in other areas of the budget, and doesn't offer a way to pay for it,'' Leman said.

The state Department of Revenue said earlier this month that the state would need $906 million from the Constitutional Budget Reserve to meet this year's expenditures. It would need another $1.13 billion for fiscal 2003, which begins July 1, 2002.

A bipartisan panel of lawmakers met over the summer to consider the state's ''fiscal gap'' and is expected to begin debate in January on reinstituting an income tax, and imposing other industry-specific taxes along with a cap on Permanent Fund dividends to make up the shortfall.

Leman wouldn't predict what portions of Knowles' plan would survive budget negotiations. Many Republicans support finding permanent homes for foster children and strengthening the bond between children and parents, but expanding state programs isn't always the answer, Leman said.

''It seems like all Governor Knowles wants to do is say, 'we need more government programs or we need to spend more to make this happen,''' Leman said.

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