In public testimony, Juneau residents ask lawmakers for more education help

Two dozen testify Friday in front of House Finance Committee

People fill the chairs in the gallery of the House Finance Committee on Friday, March 2, 2018. (James Brooks | Juneau Empire)

Some Juneau residents are urging the Alaska Legislature to boost funding for education and programs helping Alaskans released from prison.

 

In public testimony given Friday afternoon, two dozen locals told members of the House Finance Committee that they want to see increased spending on a variety of public projects. None advocated additional cuts to the state budget, which is operating with a deficit of more than $2.5 billion per year.

A handful urged lawmakers to pass a state income tax. No income tax bill is being seriously considered this year.

“We need a state income tax by the end of this regular session. Without it, we are simply perpetuating greater uncertainty,” said Juneau resident Sean Strauss.

Much of the testimony focused on state support for education.

Juneau-Douglas High School student Stella Tallmon urged lawmakers to boost per-student funding to school districts across the state.

“Increasing the (base student allocation) is the greatest thing you can do as lawmakers to make the way for a stable future,” she said.

Jeff Short, a member of the Juneau School Board, told lawmakers that their currently proposed flat-funded schools budget will mean cuts of about $3 million to $5 million because rising costs are squeezing the district.

“Covering (those costs) will require larger classrooms and elimination of programs, including those that support our neediest students,” he said.

Erin Laughlin, editor of the University of Alaska Southeast student newspaper, said the Legislature should fund the University of Alaska budget at levels requested by the university system’s board of regents, rather than at the somewhat lower level being considered by the House Finance Committee. Laughlin brought comment postcards from fellow UAS students and was supported by others who offered similar testimony.

“Having a fully funded university guarantees that we’re going to continue to have a skilled workforce,” said UAS student Briana Walker, who also urged the board of regents’ figure.

Craig Dahl, director of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, called by phone and said the university system has had to endure severe cuts. “We’re at the point where we need to recognize and respect that a strong university system is a backbone,” he said.

Kara Nelson, of Haven House Juneau, urged lawmakers to support proposed funding for recidivism programs, the efforts the state makes to support people released from prison.

“I want to know I can call and have these supports readily available,” she said. “I can’t say that I can make that call today and have those supports available.”

She was far from the only person to testify on that topic: Many Juneau residents took the microphone to explain their experiences with the criminal justice system and to explain how state programs have helped them stay away from drugs and alcohol, and to maintain steady employment.

Juneau resident Greg Fitch, who has said he intends to run a write-in campaign for U.S. Congress, spoke on the Legislature’s need to fund mental health treatment more broadly.

“I think we must invest in people, I really do,” he said.

“We all count on it, and we count on you,” he told the lawmakers.

The House Finance Committee is considering amendments to the state budget this week and is expected to pass the budget to a vote of the full House later this week or next week.


• Contact reporter James Brooks at jbrooks@juneauempire.com or call 523-2258.


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