Dec. 19, 2001 The Voice of the Times on upcoming state budget challenges

Posted: Wednesday, December 26, 2001

The governor calls it a ''strong future'' budget, putting a lot more money into children's health programs, public safety and economic development. It's the spending plan he's sending the Legislature for Fiscal Year 2003.

All well and good, maybe. But what Gov. Tony Knowles sees as a budget ''responsible for today and for a strong future tomorrow,'' others see as simply irresponsible. Like the speaker of the House, for example.

Says Rep. Brian Porter, the Anchorage Republican who presides over the state House of Representatives:

''When Alaska faces deficits of $900 million this year and almost $1.2 billion the year after, it just doesn't make sense for the governor to respond by adding $200 million more in state spending. How can we expect Alaskans to understand the reality of the fiscal gap if the governor keeps promising new spending to every constituency group he meets?''

Well, for one thing, we're heading into an election year. Politicians are prone to promise constituency groups what they want -- it's the nature of the beast.

For another, this is Gov. Knowles' last general budget submission to the Legislature. He's headed into his final 11 months in office. His eight years in Juneau will run out the first of December.

Already, others are in the hunt for his job, including his No. 2 partner in the governor's office, Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, the leading Democratic contender to succeed him.

His relationship with lawmakers, when the Legislature reconvenes Jan. 14 for the start of the second half of its 22nd session since statehood, will be significantly different than in the past.

In a sense, he will be a lame-duck governor. That relieves him of a certain amount of pressure, figuring that he will not have to deal with this same group of legislators ever again. But it also gives legislators a new clout in dealing with him, knowing that this will be Knowles' last chance to build on his gubernatorial legacy.

He can seek help on this from the Legislature, or he can get into alley fights that he may or may not win before the session adjourns on May 14.

One of the battles, inevitably, will be over the budget -- which he proposes at $2.6 billion for the fiscal year beginning next June 30. But that's hardly the limit of upcoming spending -- with millions more expected, among other things, in supplemental appropriations to cover previously unbudgeted spending in the current fiscal year.

We are headed into a big political year -- in more ways than one.

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