Murkowski likely to propose $200 million in state budget cuts

Posted: Wednesday, March 05, 2003

Gov. Frank Murkowski is expected to propose about $200 million in cuts to state programs during a speech to the Legislature tonight, his budget chief said Tuesday.

"The budget cuts touch just about every program," said Cheryl Frasca, head of the Office of Management and Budget, which is preparing the governor's proposal.

About $200 million in cuts are needed just to absorb the state's automatic cost increases for next year for functions including health and social services, bond debt and covering reduced federal funding, Frasca said.

She would not detail the amount of Murkowski's budget proposal and just where the proposed savings would come from, saying that specifics will be available today. But she confirmed "pretty close" to $200 million in proposed cuts are involved.

The Republican governor is scheduled to announce his budget proposal to the Republican-led Legislature in a speech at 7 p.m. in the state House chambers.

Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat, predicted many people will be shocked to see what $200 million in cuts really mean. A cut of that size will mean reductions in visible and valued public services, he said.

"I predict there will be a lot of Alaskans who voted for Frank Murkowski who are surprised and upset," he said.

But Republicans in the Legislature point to the state's gaping budget shortfall and say voters gave Murkowski a mandate last fall.

Senate President Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican, said the new governor is trying to be "very aggressive" in controlling state spending, an attitude Therriault contends is a welcome change from the previous governor, Democrat Tony Knowles.

But Therriault does not expect all of Murkowski's budget proposals will be easy to bear. And he said the Legislature will take a close look at all aspects of Murkowski's proposal.

"We're not going to be an automatic rubber stamp," he said.

The current year general fund budget is about $2.3 billion. The state faces a $500 million budget shortfall this year. More gaps are predicted in subsequent years, enough that the main budget reserve is forecast to dry up by June 2005.

Frasca said Murkowski officials went through every state department to find places to cut, with an effort made to avoid hurting some of the state's "more traditional responsibilities" such as public safety and transportation.

But even education was not immune from the quest for cost savings, Frasca said, because it makes up such a huge part of the state's budget. One proposed education cut has already been announced: the closure of the Alyeska Central School, a statewide correspondence school based in Juneau.

Lawmakers predicted tonight's speech will shift the quiet legislative session into high gear.

"I think we are about to be hit with a tidal wave," said Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat.

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