Many Alaska lawmakers agree there needs to be action this year on the state’s budget crisis. As a starting point for that discussion, Governor Bill Walker in December proposed a 4.2 billion dollar operating budget that included job cuts, tax increases and use of the Alaska’s Permanent Fund. Even with those measures, Alaska would still have a spending deficit in the hundreds of millions. Lawmakers representing Southeast Alaska have mixed reactions to the governor’s budget, but say they’re ready to make changes.
The three lawmakers representing Juneau do not like the governor’s proposed job cuts, specifically, cuts to Department of Transportation design engineers. Walker has proposed chopping 76 engineering jobs in the upcoming year with additional positions slashed in future years. Some of those jobs are in Juneau and Democratic Representative Sam Kito thinks it’s important to keep those positions.
“The state of Alaska does need to have a core group of engineers within the department that can understand, oversee and manage projects because the state oversight of a project is going to be much different in perspective than a private sector management of a project,” Kito said.
More than half of the DOT’s design work is already contracted out to private companies and Walker wants to send out all of that work by the following fiscal year. Democratic Representative Justin Parish thinks that plan will have broader impacts. “I think we’ll see a lot more work go out of state and consequently it’ll be a drain on the overall Alaska economy and the Juneau economy in particular,” Parish said.
Parish and Kito’s Juneau counterpart in the Senate, Democrat Dennis Egan, said the governor’s proposed cuts disproportionately impact the people he represents. “You know we’ve cut in my district over 200 positions already and you know many more are on the chopping block and that really concerns me,” Egan said. “You know we have to provide basic services. That’s why we have to do something about tackling revenue.”
Overall, Walker’s budget proposes to eliminate 400 state jobs by the end of this year. He’s also proposed increases to taxes on motor fuel, jet fuel and marine fuel. And he’s still seeking legislative approval to use some of the earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund to pay for state government. Even with the reductions and new revenues Walker says the state will still have an 890 million dollar deficit and wants to work with the Legislature to come up with other ways to close that gap.
Sitka Republican Senator Bert Stedman calls the governor’s proposal a good beginning. “But the deficit numbers are actually about 2.8 billion if you don’t take into account his proposed changes in his budget with revenue enhancement and other things,” Stedman noted. “So it’s a good staring place but we need to fix this deficit issue.” Stedman expects to see a combination of further spending cuts and new revenue sources. He wants to remove tax credits for oil companies. Stedman said he’ll keep an open mind on fuel tax increases but expects it will take multiple new revenue sources to fix the problem.
Ketchikan independent Representative Dan Ortiz said he likes the governor’s budget proposal. “It’s just I think another example of him from the time that he’s taken office, putting things out there that while might not be politically popular they are I guess the doctors recommended medicine for the overall health of the state’s fiscal situation so yeah, I liked his budget.”
Sitka Democratic Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins thinks there needs to be a focus on the hundreds of millions of dollars of credits paid to oil companies. But he likewise thinks the governor’s budget proposal is a good start.
The governor has proposed furlough days for state employees and freezing automatic salary increases. Walker says he’ll be taking a pay cut of one third of his salary and declining per diem payments, or reimbursement for food and lodging.
Kreiss-Tomkins thinks legislators need to be part of the solution by cutting their own costs. He plans to introduce a bill addressing legislative pay and thinks lawmakers need to be more frugal. “Especially in preaching austerity to agencies and the Alaskan people, demonstrating fiscal responsibility itself and restraint and conservatism and I really believe in that sort of personal fiscal conservatism and responsibility and frugality and I would like to see that happen within the institution as much as possible and so I think there will be measures forthcoming that I will be directly involved with this legislative session that will relate to a variety of subjects,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
His House colleagues from Southeast agree. Juneau’s Kito said the Legislative Council he chairs will look at per diem policies. Lawmakers also note they’ve reduced the top pay levels for their staff.
Ketchikan’s Ortiz wants to try again to hold the Legislature to a 90-day session, a resolution he supported last year. He also wants to look at reducing out-of-state travel for lawmakers.
“If you look up and down the lines of all the different agencies, every one, including education, including health and human services they have been reduced and I think ours has been reduced the least and we need to be leaders in that area, so I’m going to be a proponent for any measures we can do to show the public that the Legislature is working hard to save money as well. Cause we just need to do that,” Ortiz said.
The conversation’s already begun. Anchorage Democratic senator Bill Wielechowski prefiled legislation to end per diem payments past the 90 day regular session unless the Legislature has approved an operating budget.
Here are some past stories from other Southeast Alaska radio reporters on the first session of the 30th Alaska Legislature, on a new bi-partisan coalition and funding prospects for Fish and Game, Pioneer homes, the state ferry system and education.