House pushes through budget cuts of $26 million

GOP turned back Democrats' efforts to restore program funds

Posted: Thursday, March 16, 2000

Democrats tried to change the House's version of the state operating budget for next year.

They failed.

On Wednesday, Republican budget writers presented the full House with an operating budget that aims to reduce $26 million of state general fund spending - just over 1 percent from last year's $2.2 billion.

Democrats, saying the budget included cuts for cutting's sake alone, tried to restore or increase the amount of money aimed at a bunch of state programs - ranging from child care to the University of Alaska to parks management.

Of the 49 amendments offered, only one making a technical funding change - by Rep. Eldon Mulder, Anchorage Republican and co-chairman of the House Finance Committee - was approved.

Another 27 amendments were distributed on the floor but were not put to a vote.

That nary a substantive change was approved by the House during the floor session, which ran from early Wednesday afternoon to early this morning, didn't surprise Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat and minority leader of the House.

``You go through the process not with the realistic hope of passing an amendment, but to make a point,'' he said.

The point Democrats tried to get across, he said, was that programs should be funded or not funded based on their merits, not to accomplish an arbitrary budget-cutting goal.

Mulder stood dozens of times to defend the operating budget against arguments raised by Democrats and the four-member conservative GOP minority.

He said there were a lot of tough choices to be made at a time when state revenues didn't match state spending. The budget in the House, he said, was close to $100 million less than the proposal made by Gov. Tony Knowles before the start of the legislative session.

Some issues, such as finding more money for the University of Alaska, which has asked for nearly $17 million more for the 2001 fiscal year, may still be addressed before lawmakers finish this year's session, he said.

Responding to an amendment to add money to the budget for road maintenance near Kenai, Mulder said Alaskans have made it clear they want less spending. Less spending, he said, means less state service.

``We've heard from a lot of Alaskans that they don't like government ... that they don't want to pay for government,'' Mulder said. ``We're asking people to live with less.''

Though some votes on amendments weren't entirely party-line, it was clear the budget would look much the same after the process as it did before hitting the floor.

A vote on the final budget was expected today. Barring a dramatic break from tradition, the GOP-led majority will pass the budget.

For members of the majority, such a vote is required, said Rep. Con Bunde, an Anchorage Republican.

Votes on amendments showed some majority members apparently straying. However, GOP votes for more money for the University of Alaska, Power Cost Equalization and other programs didn't have a real chance.

Bunde, for example, voted to restore $130,000 of funding cut from the state's grant to public radio. He said the vote was, to a degree, an ``exercise of futility.'' He supports the program, but even as he voted, he knew the amendment wouldn't pass.

``As long as the amendment isn't going to pass, you can do what you want,'' he said. ``Individual motives depend on individual legislators - strongly held beliefs to something less than that.''

Other amendments that failed asked for new or added spending for K-12 education, municipal aid programs, tobacco control programs, hiring more social workers, paying more for public defenders and staffing juvenile detention centers.

Mulder defended a decision not to increase funding for overcrowded juvenile facilities as a matter of picking what programs make sense given the big budget picture.

``A budget component needs to be looked at in terms of the entire budget,'' said Mulder. ``It's hard to say `no' sometimes, but it's the responsible thing to do.''

Rep. John Davies, a Fairbanks Democrat, said it's gotten to the point where budget cutting has gone too far.

``We're making bad choices so we don't make worse choices,'' he said.

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