Senators baffled at proposed reductions to public safety departments

Senators baffled at proposed reductions to public safety departments

Budget proposal at odds with governor’s words, lawmakers say

When Gov. Mike Dunleavy declared a “war on criminals” in his State of the State speech, many around the state were encouraged.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, was among them. When Hoffman read through Dunleavy’s proposed budget this Wednesday, Hoffman was befuddled. According to presentations to the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday and Friday, Dunleavy’s budget proposes cuts of about $29 million from the Department of Corrections, $3 million from the Department of Public Safety, $1.8 million from the Department of Law, $900,000 from the Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs and a $3.5 million increase in spending for the Alaska Courts System.

At Friday’s Senate Finance Committee meeting, which included presentations from the Department of Law and the Department of Corrections, Hoffman said he was shocked to see the state spending less money on these departments after the governor made clear he wants to combat crime.

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The DOL presentation showed that the governor’s proposed budget would spend $1.8 million less on the department next year if the budget remained unchanged. Hoffman asked DOL Administrative Services Director Anna Kim how the department can do its job better while spending less money.

Kim pointed to a $1.1 million fiscal note that would go to the department if Senate Bill 32 (which extends sentences for offenders) is passed by the Legislature. She said that money can help offset the state cuts.

“We’ll still continue to do the things that we do in the department,” Kim said. “We’ll still continue to prioritize things in the department as we have in the past and we’ll manage within the resources we have. We feel that positive fiscal note will have an impact on the activities that will be tough on crime.”

Hoffman wasn’t satisfied with the response.

“The fiscal note doesn’t cover the total amount,” Hoffman said. “The explanation seems lacking to me for the general public. There is a reduction that is to me a substantial amount and the people of Alaska deserve an answer for what is not going to be performed as a result of this reduction.”

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Hoffman and his fellow committee members repeatedly expressed frustration with the budget proposal in presentations Thursday and Friday. Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said in Friday’s meeting he was surprised that the state is pondering closing down a wing of Wildwood Correctional Center in his district. Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said in Thursday’s meeting that he was surprised at a $3 million cut to the state’s Village Public Safety Officer program.

Presenters, including deputy commissioners and other department officials alongside Office of Management and Budget Director Donna Arduin, kept telling the senators that they felt they could continue to operate their departments well with less state funding.

They also emphasized that while funding from the state’s General Fund might be decreasing, funding from federal sources and from legislation might be increasing. For example, a fiscal note (an estimate of state costs) from Dunleavy’s Senate Bill 32 (which increases sentences for offenders) estimates that the state will have to spend $1.1 million on the DOC if the bill goes through.

OMB Deputy Director Laura Cramer said in an interview after Friday’s meeting that she expected the senators to provide tough feedback. She said this is only a warm-up for when they talk about cuts to education, where the governor’s budget proposes the state make much more significant cuts than the cuts to public safety departments.

“I think that they should be critical,” Cramer said. “(These are) some significant changes to the budget, maybe it’s just a sampling of what we’ll see for the Department of Education and the university and those programs that are seeing larger cuts.”

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.

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