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Senate Dems offer qualified praise for budget

Senate Finance committee restored some cuts made by House

Posted: March 27, 2013 - 8:21pm  |  Updated: March 28, 2013 - 12:11am
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Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, talks about the Senate Finance Committee's version of the operating budget at the Capitol on Wednesday. The Senate is scheduled to hear amendments to the bill on Thursday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, talks about the Senate Finance Committee's version of the operating budget at the Capitol on Wednesday. The Senate is scheduled to hear amendments to the bill on Thursday.

Senate Democrats had some complimentary things to say about the Senate Finance Committee’s version of the state operating budget, which was read on the Senate floor for the first time Wednesday morning, but they made it clear that they are still not entirely happy with the $9.87 billion proposal.

Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, was quick to respond to a question at a Senate minority press conference Wednesday on the draft budget with his thoughts, saying, “It’s definitely an improvement.”

“We’re seeing some incremental changes to the benefit of the public,” French continued. “Whether that’s the right approach in total for the whole budget package, I think you have to ask yourself, you know, whether you’re getting there.”

But French criticized the funding level for pre-kindergarten grants in the budget.

Republican Gov. Sean Parnell’s budget reduced $2.8 million authorized last year for pre-K grants to $2.48 million. The House Finance Committee’s budget subcommittee on the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, chaired by Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, cut that down to $2 million — a reduction maintained by the Senate Finance Committee.

“You’re going to hear us sort of pushing back against those numbers … as the conversation happens today and tomorrow,” said French.

Another Democrat at the press conference, Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, confirmed that he would offer amendments on the Senate floor to restore funding for education and other areas to the operating budget.

“There are several cuts,” Wielechowski said. “They’re small amounts, but I’ve been introducing amendments to put them back in.”

Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, who caucuses with the Republican-led Senate majority, said Wednesday that he does not intend to offer any amendments of his own on the floor.

“We did O.K.,” Egan said of the budget after the legislation was read onto the Senate floor. “We got some stuff put back in, stuff for (the Alaska Department of) Fish and Game, other things. It’s like Sen. French says, it’s not enough.”

Egan is not on the Senate Finance Committee this year, but he served on the Fish and Game budget subcommittee. He also chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.

Egan expressed unhappiness about cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System contained in the budget, but he said he will not introduce an amendment to reverse some or all of the cuts due to lack of support.

After Egan made a joke to French, who was in the same room, French deadpanned, “I expect that Sen. Egan will be supporting all of my amendments tomorrow, and I would be happy to vote for any that you are courageous enough to bring to the floor.”

“Well, it’s a waste of time on the Marine Highway System,” Egan responded.

French replied, “It’s always a good idea to make your point.”

Although the budget legislation was placed before the full Senate Wednesday, there was no action or discussion on the floor. Amendments will likely come later in the week, as early as Thursday.

The Senate version of the operating budget is some $43.3 million larger than the version that passed the House.

House Finance Committee member Wilson said on Wednesday, “I think they probably put more into it than I would’ve liked to see. You know, we’re heading for a fiscal cliff at this point, no matter what happens. The question is, how far up are we going to keep putting the budget before we’re jumping?”

Wilson referred to deep cuts her subcommittee, and then later the full House Finance Committee, made to Parnell’s budget request for digital learning programs.

Of $5.9 million Parnell requested for digital education programs — Wilson mentioned the “1 to 1 Initiative,” an Alaska Association of School Boards-led effort to train teachers how to teach using tablet computers and provide every Alaska public school student with a tablet device within four years, as an example — the House Finance Committee left $900,000 remaining.

“It’s just very unfair for us to keep doing some of these projects without being able to sustain it over the long period,” Wilson said, noting the 1 to 1 Initiative’s requirement for four years of increasing funding.

The Senate Finance Committee version of the budget includes $5.16 million of Parnell’s digital education request, which the report from Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Dunleavy’s DEED subcommittee states can be used for the 1 to 1 Initiative and other programs as the department sees fit.

Wilson suggested that by significantly cutting that part of the DEED budget, the House Finance Committee may have prompted proponents of the endangered programs to offer more information to its Senate counterpart.

AASB officials, as well as supporters of funding for the Online with Libraries program, gave a lengthy presentation to Dunleavy’s subcommittee earlier this month on digital learning.

“That’s what the process does, is that you bring more people into the discussion sometimes when you actually make a cut,” Wilson said. “More people will come in with more information, and that gives the Senate that opportunity to maybe get information that we just were unable to realize. So, you know, it’s compromising.”

Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

 

This story has been updated to correct a typographical error. The Senate version of the operating budget is approximately $9.87 billion.

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