Gov. Bill Walker called the Alaska Legislature into its fourth special session of the year and put taxes and criminal justice on the agenda.
While lawmakers have embraced discussion on the latter item, they’ve been reluctant to talk taxes.
In a press conference Monday, Walker and members of his cabinet said the two issues are intertwined. They urged the Legislature and Alaskans to consider a stable budget as one of the best crime-fighting tools available.
“One thing we have found out over the past several years: We cannot cut our way to a safer Alaska,” Walker said.
The press conference was intended to roll out Walker’s crime-fighting plan, but as commissioners spoke, they each said a balanced budget, one that forestalls further cuts to state agencies, is key to their strategy.
Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said she intends to hire additional prosecutors. Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Davidson said mental health treatment options are critical for addicts to get help instead of jail. Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan said 43 of 280 Alaska State Trooper positions are vacant, and the budget is a factor: Prospective troopers are unwilling to join the force if there’s the possibility of a budget-related pink slip.
All of these things are needed in addition to Senate Bill 54, the criminal justice bill under consideration in the special session, they said.
“We believe that our state’s current unstable budget is a factor in attracting qualified individuals into state service,” Monegan said. “It’s not just the Department of Public Safety but all of our departments within the state. Every one of us is having a difficult time filling our vacancies.”
Walker declined to answer questions from the Empire about whether he intends to ask for more money for the departments of Corrections, Public Safety and Law when he finalizes his Fiscal Year 2019 budget request in December.
“I don’t know that,” he said.
Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams, in response to a separate question, said some of the items in Walker’s crime-fighting plan “will require more money.”
“Public safety costs dollars,” Lindemuth said, explaining that she is asking for five additional prosecutors.
Since taking office, Gov. Bill Walker has proposed (and the Legislature has delivered) cuts to crime-fighting agencies including the departments of Corrections, Public Safety and Law, though that trend reversed this year.
In fiscal year 2016, Walker signed a $195 million budget for the Department of Public Safety. That was down $11.5 million from FY15.
For FY18, Walker signed a $194.1 million budget for the department. That was up $4.8 million from FY17.
Walker has previously said the state needs fiscal stability to address its issues. He has proposed increasing taxes to address the state’s $2.8 billion deficit, but the Alaska Senate has rejected that idea. The Alaska House Finance Committee, which approved a now-rejected income tax earlier this year, has appeared lukewarm to Walker’s special-session tax proposal.
Sitting in the back of the press conference Monday was Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks.
Afterward, he said the Senate supports a comprehensive crime plan, but any Senate support will depend on the details. He said he didn’t have a copy of the governor’s crime-fighting plan and thus couldn’t comment on those details.
“I just wanted to go there to show the Senate’s in support of a crime package of some kind,” he said.
He said he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to try to combine a crime-fighting plan with the issue of the state’s $2.8 billion deficit. The Senate has previously voted to increase funding for public safety, even if it doesn’t support taxes to pay for that increase.
At one point during the press conference, commissioners asked Alaskans to urge their legislators to solve the deficit. Kelly didn’t think that was appropriate.
“That’s politicizing crime,” he said.
• Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 523-2258.