Tales of budget woes

Residents from around the state talk about impact of proposed reductions

Posted: Sunday, March 05, 2000

A budget cut can cost a town it's radio station, can cost a woman a life of violence, can cost the state an educated work force.

On Saturday, the spreadsheets for the 2001 state operating budget had life stories and criticisms attached to them during what's become an annual marathon of public testimony before the House Finance Committee.

The most persistent testimony against proposed cuts referred to public radio, the University of Alaska, K-12 education, and domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse programs.

The budget under consideration by the committee would cut close to $24 million of general funds from the $2.1 billion general fund budget for the current 2000 fiscal year. Some budget items in the 2001 budget proposal aren't complete yet and decisions on funding for some things, such as municipal aid programs, won't be made until later in the budget-building process. When federal and other funds are added to the nearly $2.1 billion in general fund spending being considered, the budget tops $4.5 billion, or $25 million more than last year.

The 1.1 percent general fund reduction to state departments includes a $335,000 cut to the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

Pam Nelson, of Kenai, said she's put her life back together thanks to the women's shelter in town. The cut, she said, will mean other lives will remain shattered.

``The abuse I experienced was horrible and life threatening,'' Nelson said. ``I almost died. I have to tell you, cutting domestic violence spending will leave women in terrible situations.''

The Republican majority in the Legislature has promised to cut $30 million of general funds for 2001. The operating budget before the House Finance Committee Saturday is about $100 million removed from the spending plan offered by Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles before the start of the legislative session.

Rep. Eldon Mulder, co-chairman of the committee, said some of the proposed cuts won't be included in the final budget, which won't be approved until near the end of the session. The Anchorage Republican said Saturday's testimony, with a diverse set of Alaskans testifying over a wide range of programs, speaks to the difficulty of putting a budget together.

``When you hear the impassioned pleas from Alaskans, it does have an impact on you,'' Mulder said. ``You try to balance the needs of all Alaskans and fund vital public services.''

Educators from across the state bemoaned the nearly $19 million reduction in spending for K-12 education. The proposed budget does fully fund the education funding formula set in law, which is based on the number of students. The reduction comes on the heels of declining school enrollment.

Higher education is also struggling for funds. The University of Alaska gets the same $172 million of general funds it did last year. However, Mark Hamilton, the university's president, has asked for $16.9 million more, which the subcommittee overseeing his budget agrees should be spent.

Michael Queen, of Anchorage, said he can't work as a firefighter anymore due to injury. He testified that he went to the University of Alaska Anchorage to get a jump on a new career. He said it was obvious more money is needed there.

``I was appalled,'' he said. ``We have a third rate university. A third rate library.

``It's an investment, it's not an expenditure.''

Proposed cuts of $330,000 to public radio's $2.6 million budget from last year, and an effective $76,000 cut to the Alaska State Council on the Arts spurred many to testify.

Steve Hanlin, with KBRW in Barrow, said the cut to public radio with have a ``devastating, domino-like effect'' on public radio across the state.

``Several stations will go off the air in places that are underserved or unserved,'' Hanlin said.

From Bethel, Chris Bragg said cuts that could lead to the end of a music program in Fairbanks and to arts programs across the state aren't on her list. She works for the regional health organization for the Yukon and Kuskokwim deltas where per capita income levels are as low as they get.

``In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, many people are barely making it,'' she said. ``In the delta, we're not talking about music and art, though those things are nice.''

Bragg said state budget cuts - such as those to alcohol and drug abuse programs - are undermining the promotion of job development and of the ability for the Bush to provide healthy workers.

Listening to the testimony on television, Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat and House Minority Leader, said budget cuts aren't the answer to the state's fiscal problem. The Legislature, he said, has got to come up with a way to raise more money.

``I've heard the people of Alaska very clearly,'' he said. ``Stop cutting programs in ways that hurt people and start raising revenues to address the budget shortfall.''

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