Balancing the budget: Some lawmakers say scale tipping against rural Alaska
In balancing the state’s budget, some lawmakers say rural Alaska is taking a harder hit than urban parts of the state.
Rep. Andy Josephson said it’s a pattern he’s noticing this year.
“The further you get away from the rail belt, you do see that happen,” Josephson told reporters at a press conference Tuesday. “I see it happen in every committee.”
Statewide cuts to seniors, pre-K education, and substance abuse programs weigh heavily in rural Alaska. But beyond those, there are others that are exclusively rural. Rep. Bob Herron said in small communities the loss of a single job is big news.
“One job in a town of 3,000 is a huge impact,” Herron said. “But if you were to take that same ratio, in a town of Anchorage, and say we’re gonna cut out 100 jobs, because you have a 100-times larger community… well Anchorage would go wild.”
The House proposed cutting 18 jobs from Nome, a town of about 3,700 people, by closing its youth detention facility. Sen. Donald Olson said he’s not sure the closure would bring significant savings.
“What are you gonna do with those patrons or those people that are affected by that?” Olson queried. “They’re gonna have to be flown out of there. Then all of a sudden you’ve got air transportation costs and people who are gonna have to guard them.”
In his original budget proposal, Gov. Bill Walker cut funding for a district attorney in Dillingham. His administration later added that money back in as an amendment, when it said it realized the cut went too far.
“We have to make sure we have a presence in rural Alaska and this was one of our last presences in rural Alaska,” said state budget director Pat Pitney in an interview on the amendment earlier this month.
The House denied the governor’s amendment to reincorporate that funding.
Despite a push from several members of the majority for online learning in rural Alaska, the House cut grants for broadband access by $1.4 million.
“Broadband already has a [federal] match up to nine times, so are we looking at who else can match, does it just have to be the state of Alaska?” said Rep. Lynn Gattis.
Lawmakers agreed balancing the budget is a delicate process, but so far, some said the scale is clearly tipping against rural Alaska.
When asked whether, at this point, cuts feel disproportionate to rural Alaska, Herron replied “Oh yeah, sure… you bet they do.”
Herron said he’ll be working with his allies in the House to try to restore funding for rural Alaska in the House’s proposal. Other rural representatives were wary of speaking on the record about the cuts for fear of negatively impacting their relationship with the majority.
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