Finance Committee Keeps Cuts to Budget
JUNEAU — Citing concerns about dwindling federal funding and state oil revenue, the House Finance Committee refused to reinstate many of the millions of dollars of cuts its subcommittees made to Gov. Sean Parnell’s proposed operating budget.
During a Tuesday afternoon meeting, the committee approved a few amendments that grow the committee’s proposed $9.7 billion operating budget, but also approved more cuts in addition to the $195 million it has already slashed from the budget.
Committee member Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, summed up his thoughts on the state of spending during a discussion on education funding, which took up most of the three-hour meeting.
“The bottom line is, we’re all very well aware of this, is that we’re in a deficit spending mode,” he said. “These are great programs, but we don’t have the money.”
House Democrats on the committee largely focused their efforts to reinstate funding for some early education programs, including the state’s pre-kindergarten program and the Parents as Teachers program.
“It works. Intellectual development has increased,” said Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage. “We know from studies that students who go to pre-k graduate in higher numbers, go to college in higher numbers, get jobs in higher numbers, get vocational ed successfully in higher numbers, go to jail in smaller numbers and earn more money when they graduate.”
Democrats also made a bid to add $60 million to schools, but every effort was rejected by the 11-member body.
The House committee only approved amendments backed by members of the Republican-led majority caucus.
An amendment penned by Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, and committee co-chair Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, zeroed out funding for classroom digitization and directed some funds to specific online projects.
The governor requested $5.9 million for digitizing education. Wilson’s amendment, instead, sends $761,800 to the Online with Libraries program and $138,200 to the Live Homework Help program.
The committee also approved reinstating $100,000 funding to help students and youth with disabilities transition to independent living and another $100,000 for the Best Beginnings early education program.
Both programs had been cut, as well as pre-k and Parents as Teachers, in the education subcommittee, which is chaired by Wilson.
Wilson said the Legislature will reevaluate the merits of each program and determine their merits in the coming years.
“We will be tracking and we’ll be able to see what type of difference it is or is not making,” she said.
The committee also reinstated $500,000 in funding for payments to municipalities for the Alaska Land Mobile Radio system.
Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, spoke in favor of the amendment, saying it will make a big difference in the costs that need to be shouldered by the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the city of Fairbanks and the North Star and Salcha volunteer fire departments.
“This does put money back into those communities,” he said, adding that it would amount to more than $150,000.
Another amendment would reinstate $3 million in funding for the Alaska Aerospace Corp. as long as the lagging state-owned organization secures a multi-year commercial launch service contract for the Kodiak Launch Complex before the end of June.
There were few new additions to the budget.
The money needed for the Fairbanks natural gas trucking project was approved on the request of Wilson and Thompson, although separate legislation has yet to be approved by the Legislature.
Other funding increases include money for educational positions at the University of Alaska’s mining program in Juneau and at the nursing program at the Bristol Bay Campus.
Austerman said he intends Tuesday’s changes to be formalized in a committee substitute this morning, when more accurate dollar figures will be known. The budget should be on the House floor this afternoon, he said.
The House probably will vote on the bill before the end of the week. Then it will be sent to the Senate.