More than 230 residents gathered in the conference room at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex Saturday night to share their thoughts on the governor’s budget.
Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai/Soldotna, House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, and Vice-Chair of the House Finance Committee Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage, heard testimony at the event, which was part of a series of community meetings the House Finance Committee is holding across the state to get feedback on the budget.
Before public testimony began, Knopp gave a short presentation on the state’s current fiscal situation and asked residents to keep their public comment to the topic of the budget.
Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, was present at the meeting through the state’s video teleconference system. Early on in the meeting, there were technical difficulties and the video of Carpenter in Juneau was shut off.
The meeting took more than three hours, with more than 60 people testifying. While nearly 70 percent of the peninsula voted for Gov. Mike Dunleavy at the midterm election, a large majority of those who came to testify were not in favor of Dunleavy’s proposed budget. Of those who spoke in support of the proposed budget, several did not support the cuts in their entirety. Most of the residents agreed the state should curb spending from savings. Opposing cuts to education, both at the K-12 and university level, dominated the meeting.
Pegge Erkeneff, communications liaison for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, spoke on behalf of the district opposing cuts to education. State cuts to education would result in a loss of more than $22 million — nearly a quarter of the district’s total budget for the upcoming school years. Erkeneff said the district has spent more than $9 million in savings in the last seven years and has sustained cuts over the years. She said the district has managed to keep cuts away from the classroom and instead has cut at the district office. Erkeneff said the cuts could even exceed $22 million if the borough votes to not fund to the maximum. To deal with a loss of over $22 million, Erkeneff created an infographic that outlines what kinds of cuts could take place, including the closure of six schools and elimination of sports and extracurriculars.
“This sheet that I created, I’ve been accused it’s a scare tactic, and I can assure you it is not,” Erkeneff said. “It’s still $5 million shy of the $22 million.”
Erkeneff said the Legislature could help cut costs for the school district, by working to make health care more affordable. She told the House Finance Committee members that the school district has positive outcomes.
“Our school district does have positive outcomes,” Erkeneff said. “I hear constantly that our schools are failing. What are we measuring? Are we creating world-class test takers or problem solvers and solution seekers? Our schools are continually improving … The outcomes of these cuts will devastate the communities on this peninsula.”
Other residents, like Paul Hartley of Kenai, believe the state could benefit from cuts to education.
“As family and individuals we have to live within our income,” Hartley said. “So does the state. I’m sure there are numerous places where we can trim the budget and state government and possibly some other areas the state is responsible for, like the university system. We’re experiencing falling enrollment, low graduation rates and a major program losing its accreditation … Yes, I believe even our state public education system needs some adjustments.”
Director of the Kenai Peninsula College, Gary Turner, spoke out against cuts to the university budget. He said many of his staff is in limbo on deciding whether to leave or stay.
“Some of these employees have young families and their decision to look for other jobs is not just based on the potential cuts to the University of Alaska, but also to K-12 and other supportive services from the state, including funding for the municipalities,” Turner said.
For the upcoming fall semester, Turner said the campus will likely not be able to meet the demand of math and English classes due to a hiring freeze the college placed after the governor released their budget.
“In January I was prepared to make an offer to a new math professor and an English professor,” Turner said. “These positions have been vacated due to retirements. Once the budget was released I informed the candidates by phone that we would not be proceeding due to the looming budget cuts. I didn’t want to make them offers in January and then call them up in June and say, ‘sorry, I was just kidding.’”
Turner said the college has reduced their budget by more than $2 million over the last five years, which was a “huge dent for a small college.”
“We are now to the bone,” Turner said. More cuts will cut to the marrow and we’re going to start losing limbs.”
Leslie Rohr, from Love INC near Soldotna, told the committee members she was concerned about cuts to programs that serve Alaska’s most vulnerable population.
“I do agree our state needs to do something about our spending habits, but cutting vital programs to our most vulnerable population is not helping,” Rohr said.
When it came to talks of Permanent Fund Dividend checks, many residents told the committee members that they would be fine if their checks were reduced or eliminated to help maintain savings and state services. Some residents were not as keen to reduce or eliminate the check.
Marie Washburn said she’s been living in Alaska for more than 60 years. She said she would like the option to receive her Permanent Fund Dividend check or to donate it to the Legislature.
“I do not like the idea of being stolen from,” Washburn said. “As far as the budget, yes there are some cuts we all could make. I’m afraid to say it — I hate to say it, I hated it when we had a state tax, but yeah, a tax is necessary. But don’t take our PFD, let us give it to you.”
Ed Martin from Sterling told the House Finance Committee members to not touch the Permanent Fund Dividend without a vote of the people.
“I think we all understand that we have to live within our means,” Martin said. “The governor has shown you what that looks like. Now I see the Legislature for the fourth year in a row is taking the lazy approach trying to convince the public to reach into our pockets to support your downfall. I see a woe-is-me slideshow.”
Dave Jones, who normally represents the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, spoke as a resident of the state. He brought a newspaper article from the Anchorage Daily News that highlighted a time he spoke to the House Finance Committee in 2002, on similar budget issues. Jones told the committee members to take his Permanent Fund Dividend check, which called his “wake up money.”
“What I do to earn that is I wake up about 365 days a year,” Jones said. “I’ve recently started to wonder if I would go back to sleep in the morning and wake up a second time — could I get two? Please take that. I think we need to pay for the services.”
When it came to new taxes, residents seemed in favor of taxing the income of individuals who are not residents of Alaska, including North Slope workers and seasonal tourism employees. Many residents spoke both in favor and against the creation of an income tax.
Dave Peck of Kenai said the governor’s budget proposal is a good thing. He said he doesn’t like the idea of an income tax, because it can create another expense on top of other taxes residents in the borough already have to pay.
Harold Jackson in Kasilof also spoke to the House Finance Committee members in opposition of an income tax.
“Your grandchildren will dig up your bones and spit on them if you institute a state income tax,” Jackson said.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Kelly Cooper, speaking on behalf of herself, noted that the cost-shifting to local municipalities may cause an increase in taxes.
“While he campaigned on balancing the budget without raising taxes, this budget may indeed raise taxes, cost-shifting to local municipalities,” Cooper said.
The public comment taken at House Finance Committee meeting in Kenai and around the state will help lawmakers make decisions about where to fund and where to cut when it comes to the state budget.