Lawmakers may restore $88 million in cuts

State ferries, public health positions depend on restoration of state funds

Posted: Friday, January 30, 2004

The Legislature is poised to restore more than $88 million cut from state accounts following a partisan fight between Majority Republicans and Democrats last session.

The money was automatically swept into the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve because lawmakers failed to agree to a three-quarters vote at the end of last session.

Without it, state ferries may be laid up, public health nurses could be cut and safety upgrades to the Nome Youth Detention Center would not get underway in time for the arctic construction season.

"We're trying to generate some good will so we can work together," said Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz. "They created the mess, but we're in a position to sweep it up."

Republicans in the Legislature and administration officials deemed they didn't need a super-majority vote to balance the state budget with reserve funds, so they adjourned without the typical end-of-session deal with Democrats.

Without the three-quarters vote, $88.7 million in holdover cash reverted to the budget reserve out of reach of state administrators.

That left the Alaska Marine Highway System with a $9.3 million shortfall that could leave it out of money by April, said Tom Briggs, deputy transportation commissioner.

The Alaska Marine Highway System operates eight ferries in summer months and four in winter. Transportation officials are considering several steps to avert a shutdown, which would come during the most profitable summer travel season, Briggs said.

"The worst case scenario is we tie up the vessels for an extended period of time, but I'm not recommending that," Briggs said.

Also swept was $3.9 million to remodel the Nome Youth Detention Facility, a 20-year-old building with inadequate wiring and a faulty heating system.

Plans were under way to double the capacity at the six-bed facility and make needed repairs, said superintendent Bob Froehle.

Programs to provide alcohol treatment to juveniles and parents seeking custody of their children were delayed and $1.2 million in tobacco settlement money was swept, said Janet Clarke of the state Department of Health and Social Services.

The state borrowed some money from the public health nurses program, which will be out of cash in late April or May, Clarke said. It is unclear how that program will be affected, she said.

Senate President Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican, is co-sponsor of the Democrat bill to reverse the sweep and restore funding.

"We still have lots of political differences, but we need to come together in areas like this," Therriault said.

But bipartisanship isn't expected to endure as lawmakers begin negotiating over another super-majority vote which Democrats say is necessary to properly close the books on the 2003 session.

Democrats have traditionally used that vote to broker budget compromises. Last year they were seeking several construction projects in the capital budget along with a guarantee to protect the permanent fund dividend program, said Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Bethel Democrat.

Hoffman, who sponsored the sweep legislation, said projects in too many Democrat districts were ignored when the state's construction budget was approved.

Negotiations will likely take up where they left off last session and could take several months, Hoffman said.

Meanwhile, the bipartisan bill to restore funding to programs inadvertently cut is expected to move quickly through the Legislature, Hoffman said.

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