The Republican majority in the Legislature appears ready to fund most existing state services but little in the way of new or expanded programs, especially those aimed mostly at rural areas.
Democrats in the Legislature and the administration of Gov. Tony Knowles said budget targets released by the House Finance Committee on Tuesday were confusing because there was no explanation of exactly where the majority would make cuts or restrain growth. A complete apples-to-apples comparison with Knowles' proposed budget wasn't offered by either side.
Knowles on Dec. 15 called for a general fund increase of $145 million, of which he said $80 million is needed to keep pace with growth in enrollment-driven programs, debt payments and salary increases in union contracts, as well as to replace one-time revenue sources that are gone.
He said under his proposal the general fund would be $2.41 billion in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2002.
But Republican budget-writers show the governor's request at $2.29 billion, and there are differences on several line items, as well.
"We don't care" about the discrepancies with the governor's proposed budget, said Finance Committee staffer Dennis DeWitt. "We introduce our own bill."
"This is not a budget proposal," said Annalee McConnell, budget director for Knowles. "It is numbers without explanations behind it."
But while the Republicans' five-year, $250 million budget-cutting plan ended last session, it's clear that strict fiscal discipline is still a high priority, said House Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican.
"I don't care if you're Ethan Berkowitz or if you're Vic Kohring, you're always going to have to make tough calls on money," Mulder said, referring respectively to the House minority leader from Anchorage and the conservative Republican representative from Wasilla.
Mulder said Knowles is "playing Santa Claus to everybody out there," fully aware that the Legislature will have to say no and take the blame.
McConnell agreed that the Republicans' allocations by state departments appear to show a sharp reduction in the governor's request. She said that, depending on how Republicans arrived at some numbers, they are proposing to cut $63 million out of Knowles' requested $113 million increase in operating budgets.
Among the cuts that have been proposed:
$1.3 million in the Alaska Marine Highway System. McConnell said that will result in service reductions or fare increases beyond those currently scheduled, especially as the administration was asking for an additional $1.8 million to keep the marine highway fund solvent through Fiscal Year 2002.
$7.4 million in proposed growth in the Department of Public Safety, where Knowles was seeking increases in state troopers and village public safety officers to plug what he sees as a law enforcement gap in the Bush.
$23 million of $38 million to $41 million in proposed growth in the Department of Health and Social Services, where the governor hoped to step up basic public health outreach in the Bush.
$7.5 million of a proposed $10 million increase in the Department of Administration, which for now bodes poorly for the governor's proposal to increase staffing and fill beds in Pioneers' Homes.
$9.4 million of $17 million to $19 million in proposed growth for the University of Alaska.
According to House Republicans, they would allocate $2.238 billion in general funds for operations. That's an increase of $26.7 million from what they call the "management plan," which is current year spending plus supplemental spending requests. Senate Republicans were involved in making the management plan the starting point, but they weren't involved in developing the budget targets released Tuesday, Mulder said.
Democrats complained that the budget targets or allocations were developed behind closed doors, before finance subcommittees could finish reviewing departmental performance.
As for the content, "These are baby steps," Berkowitz said in a news release. "The longer we stand still, the farther we fall behind."
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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