Panels propose cuts, changes in weighing Alaska budget

JUNEAU — Work furloughs. Cuts to public broadcasting, pre-kindergarten programs and the University of Alaska system. Closure of a youth detention facility in Nome.

These are among the recommendations that have emerged as House subcommittees tasked with delving into state department budgets were finishing their work. The House Finance Committee will consider the recommendations in drafting its version of the state operating budget. It plans to take public testimony Monday through Thursday.

State leaders face tough decisions as they grapple with a multibillion-dollar deficit exacerbated by low oil prices.

Minority Democrats said they don’t want actions taken by the Legislature to send Alaska into a recession. House Majority Leader Charisse Millett said cuts proposed by members of the Republican-led majority are meant to protect the economy and work toward a stabilized state budget.

The subcommittees built off the agency proposals from Gov. Bill Walker — deciding what to keep, reject or change. Some of the recommendations of the various subcommittees follow. One note: whatever passes the House still must go to the Senate and differences between the two sides will get ironed out by House and Senate negotiators.

— LEGISLATURE: Five-day furloughs for full-time legislative employees, reducing House office account allowances from up to $16,000 a year to $12,000 a year, eliminating funding for agency performance reviews that the subcommittee said didn’t deliver anticipated results. The panel did not include money for Anchorage legislative offices. Some have criticized the current digs as too costly. Legislators, however, still must decide what they’re going to do to secure office space in Anchorage.

—ADMINISTRATON: Eliminating the state operating grant portion of public broadcasting budgets. The recommendation keeps maintenance and operations funding for satellite infrastructure in the budget.

— EDUCATION: Deny Walker’s request to restore money for pre-kindergarten programs. The administration originally proposed eliminating funding for three early childhood programs but recently reversed course. The subcommittee said the programs — Best Beginnings, Parents as Teachers and a voluntary preschool program — aren’t “mission critical” to the state’s constitutional mandate of education. The back-and-forth debate on these programs has gone on for years.

— UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA: Cut $35 million more in state general funds than Walker proposed, which the subcommittee said the system could absorb through efficiencies and other recommended steps, including a consolidation plan by year’s end. System spokeswoman Roberta Graham said by email that the potential impacts are being analyzed but could mean cutting hundreds of filled and vacant positions. While cognizant of the state’s situation, the university community will continue pressing its case for a budget that “best preserves the academic excellence of the University of Alaska,” she said.

— HEALTH AND SOCIAL SERVICES: Closing the Nome Youth Facility. Rep. Dan Saddler, the chair of that department subcommittee, said legislators have to balance limited resources with unlimited needs. Saddler, R-Eagle River, said there have been about 20 full-time employees at the youth detention facility serving a diminishing number of clients that stands on average at around four a day. If the facility closes, children who need that service likely would have to travel to facilities in Fairbanks or Anchorage, he said.

— LAW: Close the Dillingham prosecutor’s office. The administration initially proposed closing it but then asked lawmakers to maintain it, saying the benefit to southwest Alaska of having a prosecuting attorney there offsets the costs. John Skidmore, director of the Department of Law’s criminal division, said Dillingham historically has been supervised by Anchorage and the Anchorage office could handle the cases. More than two dozen communities have courthouses or judicial officers but no prosecutor stationed there, he said.

“This is unfortunately an exercise in, What can we do that is appropriate and adequate given the resources that we’re given,” Skidmore said. The exercise applies to all of state government, he said.

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