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Conference committee compromises on state operating budget

New document bridges gaps between House, Senate versions

Posted: April 14, 2013 - 12:06am
Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, waits for senators to arrive during a 'call of the house' as the Senate takes up the Alaska gasline development bill at the Capitol on Friday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, waits for senators to arrive during a 'call of the house' as the Senate takes up the Alaska gasline development bill at the Capitol on Friday.

Work on the state operating budget wrapped up Saturday as the conference committee of House and Senate members appointed to resolve differences between the two chambers’ versions of the budget produced a compromise document.

Over the course of the past week, the committee picked through items in the budget where allocations, language or both differed between the two versions of the budget, deciding whether to take the House version, the Senate version or a compromise somewhere in between the two.

The committee compromised over some of the more controversial disparities between the two versions of the budget.

“We both sat down and realized that we needed to continue to take a hard look at our budget,” said Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, on working with his Senate counterpart, Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks.

Austerman and Kelly chaired their respective Finance committees’ work on the operating budget and led the conference committee as well.

“We didn’t want to grow it this year,” Austerman added. “The senators had a little bit more money into it than we had on the House side, and both of us — Sen. Kelly and myself — took a hard look at it and agreed that we could meet in the middle somewhere.”

"It was quite easy, actually," said Kelly. "You know, you have the delta between the two bodies. You try to get to a number. You kind of mark out the things that are kind of sticking out as gotta-haves for the state, and you just start working around those, try to get to a number."

In one example of compromise, the conference committee chose to accept $2 million of the $8.37 million unallocated decrement to behavioral health funding passed by the House — a decrement decried by many members of the public who testified before the Senate Finance Committee on the operating budget.

Of the $550,000 in the Senate version for salmon stock identification in Southeast Alaska, $440,000 was accepted by the conference committee.

In another compromise, half of the Senate version’s $204,000 increment for deicing chemicals at Ketchikan International Airport was accepted by the conference committee.

The conference committee agreed with the Senate version on funding for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, which would have seen a $485,800 cut to its state funding under the House version of the operating budget.

The conference committee also accepted the Senate version’s treatment of the Best Beginnings early education program. While Parents as Teachers, another early childhood development program, remains set for a $242,500 decrement in this year’s operating budget, Best Beginnings would be funded at the current level.

Intent language inserted in the House by Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, requiring the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to post information online about cruise ship mixing zones — authorized under a controversial state law that passed earlier this year — was accepted by the conference committee.

However, the committee rejected another piece of House intent language that would impact Juneau — language calling on the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to “eliminate any future issuing of free annual passes to vehicles of state agencies, state employees, or retirees and their families on the Alaska Marine Highway System.”

Funding for new full-time prosecuting attorneys in several communities, including Juneau, included in the Senate version was denied by the committee.

The conference committee also followed the House’s lead in denying funding for the “1 to 1 Initiative,” a four-year project proposed by the Alaska Association of School Boards to provide every public school student in Alaska with a tablet computer and train all of the state’s public school teachers in how to use them for educational purposes.

Before factoring in the fiscal notes of bills passed by the Legislature, which will be included in the final budget, the size of the conference committee’s budget is smaller than the more generous Senate version but greater than the more conservative House budget. It comes in at less than $9.86 billion, compared to more than $9.87 billion for the Senate version and about $9.83 billion for the House version.

Conference committee reports were delivered to legislators Saturday afternoon.

The House and Senate must agree to the changes before the budget can proceed to Gov. Sean Parnell’s desk.

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

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