In one way or another, Alaska’s children were the subjects of many Juneau residents’ testimony on the proposed state operating budget at a rare Saturday meeting of the Senate Finance Committee.
First among the members of the public to testify on the budget, which passed out of the House of Representatives at $9.81 billion — more than $100 million leaner than Republican Gov. Sean Parnell’s proposal — was Alaska’s first lady, Sandy Parnell.
“I am here because, like you, I care deeply about stopping the enslavement of Alaska girls and boys through sex trafficking,” Sandy Parnell told the committee. She asked that the senators restore Gov. Parnell’s budget request for $827,200 to the Alaska Department of Public Safety — funds intended to go toward a sex trafficking unit within the Division of Alaska State Troopers.
Sandy Parnell added, “The budget subcommittee narrative says the administration’s proposed funding for a sex trafficking unit was cut because, quote, ‘These new troopers are not needed given that there was not a single sex trafficking investigation in the last year,’ end quote. The reason given for cutting the funding, however, is exactly why the funding is needed, because sex trafficking is a hidden crime that must be unearthed by investigators. Its victims do not self-report.”
The funding request for a trooper sex trafficking unit is part of Gov. Parnell’s push to implement his “Choose Respect” initiative, aimed at curbing Alaska’s high rates of sexual abuse and domestic violence, at the policy level.
The first lady was accorded the privilege of testifying first by Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Sandy Parnell was followed by other Juneau residents, most of whom spoke about funding for education, behavioral health or both.
Representatives from the Juneau School District also testified, with Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich, Board of Education members Andi Story and Barbara Thurston, and school site council members Marie Marx and David D’Amore among those calling for increased education funding.
Gelbrich said he hopes to see “a sustainable, modestly increasing amount of money for public education in this state” every year.
The proposed operating budget currently contains $25 million in one-time funding for school districts, the same amount that was added in late during last year’s legislative session.
Thurston urged senators to consider spending money out of the state’s large budget reserves to “invest” in public education.
“I know the budget’s tight, but an educated workforce is the best way to grow our economy,” said Thurston, who co-chairs the JSD Budget Committee together with Juneau Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Brian Holst, who was also at Saturday’s committee hearing. “And I think this is an investment that’s worth making and worth pulling money out of reserves for.”
Marx said constrained state funding for the school district has forced schools to eliminate programs, while Story said 104 positions with the district had been cut over the last three years, and 14 more are expected to be cut before the next school year.
“The current funding level, it undercuts the ability of schools like Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School to stay on the right track,” Marx said.
Meanwhile, JEDC staff member Mary Hakala, coordinator for the STEM AK program, called for a “strategic investment” in STEM education.
“It’s an increasingly important set of skills required for an array of opportunities and jobs both in the United States and in Alaska,” said Hakala of STEM, which is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
Joy Lyon, executive director of the Association for the Education of Young Children – Southeast Alaska, asked the Senate Finance Committee to restore the full increments proposed in Gov. Parnell’s draft operating budget for the Best Beginnings and Parents as Teachers early education programs.
“These two programs are some of the most wisest investments that we make in our state, because that is the best return on investment, is growing healthy, smart, solid citizens, and it really starts from day one,” Lyon said.
The House Finance subcommittee on the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development budget cut $242,500 from Parents as Teachers and $137,500 from Best Beginnings, reducing both to funding levels of $800,000.
One hundred thousand dollars for the Best Beginnings program was restored by the House Finance Committee in an amendment before the budget passed the House, but an attempt by Democratic members of that committee to restore the remaining $37,500 failed.
Both the House and Senate Finance committees delegate subcommittees to make recommendations for each section of the budget.
Not everyone who testified asked the committee for increased funding. Some only spoke to express gratitude for the work that Senate Finance subcommittees have already done.
Rhoda Walker became emotional as she spoke about her grandson, whom she said suffers from behavioral issues. In an apparent reference to the work of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services budget subcommittee chaired by Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, she thanked the senators for restoring behavioral health funding that had been stripped out of the budget by the House Finance Committee.
“We love (our grandson) so much, and we want to keep him at home,” said Walker. “So I want to tell you, thank you for your help and concern, for helping us with our child. Thank you.”
Kelly thanked Walker for her testimony, quipping, “It’s not very often we get people thanking us.”
“I want to give you all a great big hug,” Walker replied, to laughter.
The subcommittee report on the DHHS budget includes $9.59 million more for behavioral health than the budget that passed the House. It completely eliminates the $8.37 million unallocated reduction included in the House version.
Correction: The original version of this article misstated the funding reductions in the House Finance Committee version of the operating budget to Best Beginnings and Parents as Teachers. The current funding level for both programs would be reduced under that version of the budget.
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.