Top House Republicans insisted this morning that they remain serious about moving forward on a revenue-raising package to help fill the state budget gap.
But first the House must pass out a "hold-the-line" annual budget to demonstrate to the public that new taxes or permanent fund earnings won't be wasted on bureaucracy, said House Speaker Brian Porter and the two co-chairmen of the Finance Committee, Eldon Mulder of Anchorage and Bill Williams of Saxman.
Putting the 2003 budget before a long-range fiscal plan is alarming some members of the bipartisan Fiscal Policy Caucus, who constitute a majority of the House. They fear they might lose the leverage to press for a long-term budget-balancing solution once the annual budget goes over to the Senate. It's considered extremely unlikely that the Senate's Republican majority voluntarily would put new revenue on the table.
But the House Republican leadership said there's no reason to worry that they won't get around to a long-range plan.
"I personally remain very serious about it," Porter said. But the idea is to convince the public that it's necessary to talk about new revenue, and so a combination of various spending caps and program reductions "adequately sets the stage," he said.
"We do have to bring the public along with us," as well as some of the more conservative House Republicans, Williams said.
The tentative budget would be a slight decrease in general fund spending from the current fiscal year. That translates to about $90 million in cuts because there will have to be offsets for formula-driven or federally mandated programs in which costs are going up, Mulder said. Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles has proposed to spend at least $179 million more.
Most of the cuts will be "unallocated," meaning the executive branch will end up deciding what gets funded in an agency and what doesn't. Public schools and the University of Alaska will be fully funded, but the state Department of Education will have to trim some other spending, for example, Mulder said.
Finance subcommittees are expected to complete deliberations by Thursday evening, just before the Legislature takes a five-day break. The full Finance Committee will work on assembling the 2003 budget March 15-16, with floor votes March 18-20.
Immediately thereafter, the Finance Committee will take up the long-range plan, Mulder said. It will be on the House floor the last week of the month, unless it turns out there aren't enough votes to get it there, he said. It takes a majority of the House Republican caucus, at least 15 of the 28 members, for that to happen unless the bipartisan fiscal caucus chose to exercise its latent clout and roll over the existing leadership.
Rep. Ken Lancaster, a Soldotna Republican in the Fiscal Policy Caucus, said the leadership's schedule leaves him nervous.
"It doesn't work for me," Lancaster said. "We're afraid we'll never see the fiscal plan on the floor."
Rep. Bill Hudson, the Juneau Republican who founded the fiscal caucus, said he's encouraged somewhat by Porter's commitment to the revenue issue.
"It's a whole lot better than we had before," Hudson said.
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.