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ANCHORAGE - Gov. Tony Knowles on Monday defended his proposal for higher spending on children's programs, saying the moves will save money in the long run.
"Let's cut the cost of Medicaid today by keeping kids from smoking and huffing," Knowles told a sympathetic audience at an early-education conference. "Let's cut the cost of corrections by stopping child abuse and neglect."
Knowles is asking for $9 million in new state spending on children's programs, to go with $8 million from the federal government and tobacco-settlement money.
But Republican legislative leaders say they'll hold the line on spending.
"At this point, I think our caucus has said we want to look at a flat budget and realize some economies from a flat budget," said Republican Rep. Con Bunde, chairman of the education committee and vice chairman of finance.
"Everybody in the Legislature can find issues where there are difficult situations where we would like to do something to ameliorate the problem," Bunde said. "But you take those collectively and it's more than the state can afford."
The governor asked the educators and child-care workers at the conference to lobby their legislators to boost spending on child programs.
Higher spending isn't in conflict with the goal of a balanced state budget, Knowles argued.
"Everybody talks about cutting the cost of government. We agree. So think about the big-ticket items driving our budget today Medicaid, juvenile justice, corrections, public safety, health and social services," Knowles said.
Those programs will cost less in the long run if problems are caught in childhood, he said. During his speech, Knowles called on a trooper who works on child-abuse cases, a 30-year veteran of the child-protection division, and a father who gets insurance for his child through the state insurance program to show what the money would buy.
But Bunde said money wouldn't solve the problems in rural Alaska schools, for example, noting that the state faced the same problems before money began flowing from the state's oil fields.
"These problems in the schools in rural Alaska - money is not going to solve that problem. There's got to be some philosophical changes, and I don't think you can buy those," Bunde said.
In his speech, Knowles also repeated his support for closing the state's budget gap quickly, likely by adding new taxes.
Bunde, the Anchorage Republican, said it wasn't clear whether the Legislature would approve any new taxes this year.
"There's got to be some confidence level in the public that we're going to curb (spending) growth," he said.