Budget director raises issues with House proposals

JUNEAU — As a key House committee worked to finalize its version of the state operating budget, Gov. Bill Walker’s budget director pushed back against some of its proposals.

In a letter to House Finance Committee Co-Chair Rep. Mark Neuman dated last week, Pat Pitney flagged concerns with what she called drastic cuts to areas like education and the university system, a disproportional impact on rural communities and adding money to this year’s budget to artificially lower next year’s unrestricted general fund budget.

The administration has estimated that much of the proposed cuts are unavoidable costs that have been short-funded, covered using money from this year or shifted and will reappear in future budgets, Pitney wrote. That assessment includes money for the public employees’ retirement system, which is expected to be revisited pending an actuarial update; a lack of agency funds for the major gas-line project Alaska is pursuing; and different approaches to university, education and teachers’ retirement system funding, Pitney said in an interview Tuesday.

During the amendment process Tuesday, the committee approved funding for the state-sanctioned Alaska Gasline Development Corp., but not at this time for three state agencies that also requested money for the gas project.

It also voted to restore funding for a state prosecutor’s office in Dillingham, along with money for a public integrity unit proposed by the Walker administration. It reduced the level of cut to public broadcasting.

Besides cuts, Neuman has said that legislators looked for “any little pots of money” they could find to help reduce the use of unrestricted general funds, including taking $24.7 million in excess funds from a program that provides assistance for rural areas faced with high electricity costs to cover part of state costs for the university system. The state’s deficit is in unrestricted general funds.

People might say that will leave a hole next year, said Neuman, R-Big Lake. “Yeah. We’re coming back saying, ‘Next year, the budget’s going to be lower,’” he said in a recent interview.

The committee in a budget draft also proposed putting $80 million into the fund used to pay for state-sponsored scholarships and drawing nearly as much out next fiscal year to go toward the teachers’ retirement system. It proposed taking $435 million in still-available reserve funds this year and putting that into the fund that pays for public education. The Senate is considering similar language.

Neuman has suggested using $145 million of the $435 million in each of the next three years toward the state’s much larger overall tab for education.

On Tuesday, the committee approved appropriating $30 million from funds this year to expand substance abuse treatment services over the next several years. The idea is to fill in gaps in existing services, with a goal of decreasing costs associated with untreated drug and alcohol dependency.

Committee member Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, said it’s appropriate to help people in difficult situations like that but also important to be clear with Alaskans about where the money is coming from. He said it “almost seems like we’re trying to play a little bit of a shell game.”

Some committee members expressed surprise to hear during the meeting that $288 million was found in a reserve fund previously thought to have been depleted. That information also was included in budget documents provided by the administration last month.

Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, was frustrated with items being added back into the budget after the work done by subcommittees to find areas to cut or change within departments.

“Everything we add back in we’re going to be asking our constituents to now pay for in some type of revenue enhancements,” Wilson said in an interview.

More in News

Signs direct voters at the Kenai No. 3 precinct on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion file)
Signs direct voters at the Kenai No. 3 precinct for Election Day on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Local candidates report support from state PACs

Labor unions and the National Education Association are among the groups putting money into Kenai Peninsula state election races

Signs and examples on the recycling super sack at the Cook Inletkeeper Community Action Studio show which plastics are desired as part of the project in Soldotna, Alaska, on Aug. 11, 2022. Plastics from types 1, 2, 4 and 5 can be deposited.(Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Local nonprofit accepting plastics for synthetic lumber project

The super sack receptacles can be found on either side of Soldotna

This July 28, 2022, photo shows drag queen Dela Rosa performing in a mock election at Cafecito Bonito in Anchorage, Alaska, where people ranked the performances by drag performers. Several organizations are using different methods to teach Alaskans about ranked choice voting, which will be used in the upcoming special U.S. House election. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
Groups get creative to help Alaska voters with ranked voting

Organizations have gotten creative in trying to help voters understand how to cast their ballot, as the mock election featuring drag performers shows

A school bus outside of Kenai Central High School advertises driver positions on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Staff shortage, gas prices change school bus routes

The changes do not apply to the district’s special education students

The cast of “Tarzan” rides the Triumvirate Theatre float during the Independence Day parade in downtown Kenai, Alaska on Monday, July 4, 2022. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
The show goes on as Triumvirate seeks funding for new theater

The troupe has staged shows and events and is looking to debut a documentary as it raise funds for new playhouse

Aaron Surma, the executive director for National Alliance on Mental Illness Juneau and the Juneau Suicide Prevention Coalition, leads a safety plan workshop Tuesday night hosted by NAMI and the Juneau Suicide Prevention Coalition. The workshop was a collaborative brainstorming session with Juneau residents about how to create a safety plan that people can use to help someone who is experiencing a mental health or suicide crisis. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)
Study shows a rise in anxiety and depression among children in Alaska

Increase may indicate growing openness to discussing mental health, according to experts

Alaska Lieutenant Governor Kevin Meyer addresses election information and misinformation during a press conference on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. (Screenshot)
With a week to go, officials work to clear up election confusion

Officials provided updated ballot statistics, fielded questions from reporters and clarified misconceptions about the current election cycle

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
State reports 21 new COVID deaths; cases down from last week

20 of the reported deaths took place from May to July

A closeup of one of the marijuana plants at Greatland Ganja in Kasilof, Alaska, as seen on March 19, 2019. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)
Assembly streamlines process for marijuana establishment license applications

License applications will now go straight to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly for consideration

Most Read