When the local office of the Alaska Public Offices Commission became a casualty of the governor’s fiscal year 2016 budget in February, the Juneau delegation rallied to restore it.
At first, it seemed to have worked. The House Finance Committee reversed the cut in its version of the budget and asked APOC to find savings elsewhere. The Department of Administration commissioner said the office would not be closed because that would “result in diminished access to the public for an important element of government transparency.”
But the Juneau office, which is responsible for holding the state’s approximately 135 lobbyists financially accountable, later took a crippling hit silently in conference committee, when it was dealt a cut that eliminated both existing full-time positions.
When the new fiscal year begins, the current part-time assistant will become the one full-time employee in the office, said Juneau APOC program director Joan Mize, one of the workers whose job was eliminated.
Mize had followed APOC’s budgetary ups and downs the entire session. She was relieved, she said, when the Senate called for the lobbying program to collect only $120,000 in registration fees to keep a balanced budget. That’s the amount APOC generally collects from lobbyists in a year, she said.
When conference committee-approved budgets rolled out, though, she saw her office had been a victim of budget negotiations between the House and the Senate.
“I thought it had balanced out, but then when I got to looking at it (the budget called for) $240,000 in program receipts,” Mize said. “What has happened is because there’s no way we can come up with that extra $120,000 because lobbyist registration fees are set in statute.”
The extra money has to come out of APOC’s budget elsewhere. Because of the approximately 34 percent cut to the whole program, statewide staff will be knocked down from 14 to seven.
Mize has been working in the Juneau office since 2008.
“One (full-time) person can’t handle the whole office,” she said. “They found that out several years ago. That was the reason I was hired. …
“I feel like this is going to be a detriment to the agency to provide this service to the public. One person in the office cannot possibly handle everything that we do. Basically you have the (financial disclosure) filing program, 134 lobbyists and 408 employers of lobbyists have to set up their account, have reports they want to do. … We get calls when they have to do reports asking for help. Even people who’ve been doing this since 2008 still call me and say, ‘OK, (I need help).’”
Leslie Ridle, deputy commissioner of the Department of Administration, the state department that loosely oversees APOC, said she does not think one staff member in Juneau and seven staff statewide is enough to handle APOC’s workload or uphold its mission.
The commission was started through a citizens’ initiative in the 1970s in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and passage of the Alaska Campaign Disclosure Law. It collects and publishes campaign donation and financial reports for Alaska candidates for public office and political organizations, from the municipal to the congressional level.
“APOC has an important role in our government and this is a pretty severe cut for them,” Ridle said. “There will be delays, there will be longer wait times for answers, information will be harder and slower to get. They’re going to do all they can to fulfill their statutory duties.”
According to an APOC document that shows historical employment data for the agency, the smallest its staff has been since 1991 was 7.5 full-time equivalent positions in fiscal year 2004. Leading into that year, the agency took a 47 percent budget cut. This year’s cut represents the second-largest it’s had since 1991.
Since 2004, APOC’s staff has grown steadily to the 14 it started with at the beginning of this fiscal year.
“Over the years the laws have required them to do more, not less,” Ridle said. “We want everything online, we want you to be able to file reports online, anything like that costs money and time and personnel. … Over the years they’ve been expanding to meet their statutory obligations.”
Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, has been a fierce proponent of the Juneau office since local legislators got word it would not be included in Gov. Bill Walker’s budget. He said “it’s not over yet” — not until the FY 16 budget is signed, sealed and delivered.
“Gee, how many lobbyists are in Juneau during session?” he said. “We have to have a Juneau APOC office, not only for Juneau but for all of Southeast Alaska. … We should have in Juneau, in the capital, people in the office for lobbyists to file reports in person.”
With APOC’s future a little unclear, Mize said she’s worried about “transparency to see about who’s influencing the legislative and administrative process, who’s paying who to influence the Legislature and the governor and other public officials.”
“Everybody is talking about education and Erin’s Law and all of that stuff, and it was just like, nobody is talking about the group whose mission it is to provide that information to the public,” she said. “It’s just a shame that something that was started as a citizens’ intiative 40 years ago has turned into something that the legislators … want to cut the funds to the point where it’s hard for us to carry out our mission.”