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Knowles: Funding needed

Republican lawmakers frown on governor's budget increases outlined in State of State speech

Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2000

Gov. Tony Knowles asked for civility, bipartisan cooperation and $900 million worth of bond packages during his State of the State address Wednesday night.

Republican leaders said they'd be civil, but insisted they'll nix the new spending Knowles promoted in his 45-minute speech.

Continuing his push for more money for child protection and education, Knowles, a Democrat, proposed two hefty bond packages. One, for school maintenance and construction, would use money from tobacco litigation to pay for $550 million worth of school repair and new construction. The second, for transportation projects, would ask voters to approve a $350 million bond issue to be paid off with promised federal funds.

It was his call for close to $100 million more in the 2001 operating budget that's drawn the most fire from Republicans, who want to cut that budget by at least $30 million. But Knowles said spending money on children and education this year will save a lot more when those kids grow up to be healthy, educated adults.

``Well-reasoned investments aren't irresponsible,'' Knowles said. ``What's irresponsible is blind allegiance to only an arbitrary budget cut number, while ignoring the rest of the enormous budget gap and this state's vital needs.''

With the difference between state revenues and spending close to $800 million for the FY 2001 budget, he said, Alaska needs to continue to work on fixing its fiscal problems. In the wake of September's overwhelming voter rejection of a plan to use Alaska Permanent Fund earnings to bridge the so-called budget gap, he said, the effort to close the gap should be redoubled in 2000 rather than avoided.

 

``The newspapers, talk shows and even some legislators are reporting the conventional wisdom about this session - that because it's an election year, there will be no action in addressing our growing fiscal gap - or any other tough issue,'' Knowles said. ``How cynical. I don't believe the conventional wisdom or the cynics, and I don't believe that you do either.''

He also told Legislators to try to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot allowing for a rural preference for subsistence hunting and fishing - allowing the state to regain lost control over wild resources for half the state.

Republicans, who control more than two-thirds of the Legislature, had some good things to say about Knowles' speech, but weren't impressed by the governor's call for more spending. They have also said there aren't the votes to solve Alaska's subsistence dilemma this year.

At a majority press conference immediately following the governor's speech, Anchorage Republican Rep. Eldon Mulder, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, said he liked the governor's school bond proposal, but took offense at Knowles' characterization of GOP-mandated budget cuts.

``That really bothered me,'' he said, pointing out that Republicans love kids too. ``We're ensuring the financial future of our children and that's the best thing we can do for our children.''

Juneau Sen. Kim Elton, a Democrat, said Knowles' generally positive speech may light a fire under a Legislature having a hard time seeing through budget numbers to define where Alaska is headed.

``What I liked about it is he got beyond the budget dust,'' he said. ``We need to articulate a vision.''

Senate President Drue Pearce, an Anchorage Republican, told reporters that there was a vision - increased economic development and smaller government. The electorate, she said, has made it clear at the ballot box.

``We listened to the vote in September,'' Pearce said. ``The message we heard is that the majority is on the right track.

``Our commitment: Continuing to spend less.''

Knowles took time to ask lawmakers for their support of the agreement he negotiated with BP Amoco late last year, and to join him in supporting that company's efforts to merge with Atlantic Richfield Co. If approved by the Federal Trade Commission, the nearly $30 billion merger would put most of Alaska's oil production in the hands of one company.

A legislative committee will hold hearings next week on the matter.

``Delay or defeat of BP-Amoco's petition to federal regulators would be devastating to the Alaska workers and their families whose lives are on hold today,'' he said. ``That dangerously gambles with the future development of Alaska's resources.''

In support of his call for additional education spending, including nearly $17 million for the University of Alaska, Knowles said Alaska's children are facing brighter futures today.

He said 94 percent of the state's children have health care coverage and 81 percent of the state's 2-year-olds have been immunized - up from 69 percent three years ago.

But, Knowles said, more children than ever, some 1,100, are in foster care and many students will need extra help to pass a new state test - a requirement to graduate from high school.

Despite his concerns, Knowles underlined that Alaska is, generally, in good shape as it moves into the 2000s.

Riding along with the national economic expansion, he said, Alaska has seen more jobs, less violent crime, a declining welfare roll and leaps forward in children's health.

``Ladies and gentlemen,'' he said. ``The state of the state is strong.''



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