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Bill for extra spending sparks conflict between Dems, GOP

Governor, Legislature fault each other for budget problems

Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2002

As in a bad marriage, the Democratic administration of Gov. Tony Knowles and the Republican leadership of the Legislature continue to have the same argument about budgets.

With the release Tuesday of the governor's requests for "supplemental" appropriations in the current fiscal year, the two sides exchanged familiar complaints about who's being irresponsible with state dollars.

The administration says it's trying to address needs that have been obvious since the budgeting process last session, but a key legislator counters that state agencies often don't try to control costs.

Knowles has two bills, a "fast track" supplemental to address time-sensitive issues that he wants action on by March, and a regular supplemental that he wants action on by the adjournment of the session May 14. Included in the fast-track bill is $800,000 for excavation work at Juneau's Lena Point in conjunction with a new federal fisheries and ocean sciences facility.

The executive branch and legislative budget-crunchers can't agree completely on what's in the bills.

The administration says it's proposing about $39 million in increased general fund spending, including $16.5 million that was designated as a "placeholder" last year in anticipation of some cost overruns. Meanwhile, a preliminary House analysis shows that the legislation undercounts at least $5 million in general funds, according to staff.

Whatever the amount, it would add to the fiscal gap that already was running at a projected $865 million this year.

Overall, the administration says it wants to spend about $195 million more during this year, including $122 million in federal funds.

"These supplemental bills are needed to cover shortfalls, some of which were anticipated last year but ignored," Knowles said in a written statement. "The largest general fund in the fast-track supplemental bill is $12.7 million for Medicaid. This includes $4.6 million of claims that could not be paid last year because the budget was short-funded."

But House Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican, said he's not sympathetic to arguments that the Legislature partially funded some programs without regard to bills that later would come due.

"The reality is we gave them a dollar amount," Mulder said today. "They refused to manage, took the attitude that there is no bottom to the money barrel. Their directors, their commissioners, their agency personnel were never given the directive to try to rein in and hold down spending."

The administration wants $2.87 million in the fast-track bill for the Alaska Marine Highway System to compensate for high fuel prices last summer and costs associated with the fire on the ferry Columbia. Without it, there will be serious cutbacks in service during the high-revenue tourism season, said Annalee McConnell, the governor's budget director.

"It's going to get a very, very tough look," Mulder said. Fuel costs dropped in the fall and the system should have made up ground after that, he said.

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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