Alaska lawmakers gavel into session, aim to reach state budget sooner than last year
The countdown on the 2016 legislative session has begun. Lawmakers gaveled in a 90-day period in Juneau on Tuesday. Their top priority: bridging the state’s nearly $4 billion budget gap, widening by the day as oil prices continue to plunge.
“If you ask all 60 legislators how to solve this problem, you’ll get 60 different answers,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski at a press conference Tuesday morning.
Last year, it took legislators two special sessions — 143 days — to pass a budget. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they want this year to be different.
“Last year was difficult, but it was something that was necessary,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Chris Tuck to his colleagues on the house floor. “I think we finally came to an agreement in the end there, but let’s not wait till the last moment to make that happen.”
The sentiment was mimicked by Senate President Kevin Meyer, who pledged the Senate will reach a budget within the 90-day regular session this year. Sen. Meyer said he’s already working with the minority on that goal.
“No special sessions. Let’s get ‘er done in the 90-day period,” Meyer said at a press conference Tuesday morning.
Bills introduced by the House and Senate Tuesday included initiatives that would reduce the Permanent Fund dividend program and add new taxes. But before considering those bills, Sen. Meyer said he first wants to cut government spending by $700 million.
“At this time, I’m looking for broad-based cuts to government,” said Sen. Pete Kelly, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, at a press conference Tuesday. “You wanna know what the specific cut is? It’s a cut to government.”
Sen. Anna Mackinnon, the other co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, will focus in on healthcare, the second largest driver of the state’s budget after education.
“The first thing on my plate is Medicaid reform,” Sen. Mackinnon said. “I said that last year, I told the governor that I’d bring it up.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) said it’s working on ways to trim state costs on the Medicaid program. In a statement Tuesday, DHSS wrote:
Significant reductions in Medicaid are being made. Between reductions made by the Governor and the Legislature in the FY16 budget and the proposed reductions in the Governor’s proposed FY17 budget we will reduce the Medicaid budget by over $90 million in general fund reductions. Medicaid expansion-related reductions in other state programs are bringing us another $10 million. The Department continues to look for more reductions in the Medicaid program through innovation and reforms. We look forward working with the Legislature to explore additional opportunities for meaningful reform.
In balancing the budget, Democrats have warned of cutting too much from schools, but Tuesday said they are open to reforming the base student allocation (BSA), a formula that designates a per student amount of state funding for schools.
“While it’s not accurate to say we’re opposed to any changes in education, I suspect there will be an effort to change the way we fund education, the way the BSA is calculated and used,” said Sen. Minority Leader Berta Gardner. “And maybe that does need to be updated. It hasn’t been for a long time.”
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