House OKs budget, funds for subsistence

Democrats wage symbolic protest by offering no amendments

Posted: Monday, March 18, 2002

In a break from the normal legislative thrust-and-parry, House Democrats offered no amendments today to the Republican majority's proposed 2003 budget.

The House passed the budget just after noon on a 26-11 party-line vote.

Democrats said their symbolic statement was intended to expose the "charade" under which individual Republicans aren't free to vote for amendments that actually could pass on the House floor. It's also intended to turn the legislative discussion quickly toward a long-range fiscal plan, they said.

Debate on the budget, notably the $2 billion-plus general fund, had been scheduled today and Tuesday, with possible reconsideration Wednesday. But Democrats said the outcome was locked in.

"I can't tell you how unhappy and frustrated I feel with this budget," said Rep. Harry Crawford, an Anchorage Democrat. "This is not what I came here for. This does not move Alaska forward. ... It takes away from developmentally disabled people. It takes medication away from people who have mental health problems."

Republicans offered one amendment, to reverse the proposed elimination of the state subsistence program. It passed 34-3. That's intended to avoid exacerbating the urban-rural divide, said House Speaker Brian Porter of Anchorage.

Rep. Andrew Halcro, an Anchorage Republican, offered an amendment to increase funding for the University of Alaska by $6 million. That's the same amount the House earlier approved for emergency tourism marketing, a less worthy expenditure, Halcro said. He lost 22-15, with three Republicans joining him in the effort.

Normally, minority Democrats offer dozens of amendments to negate program cuts or increase spending, sometimes joined by a few Republicans but rarely, if ever, getting enough votes to pass over the objections of the House leadership.

This time, the futility of doing that is apparent, said Rep. John Davies, a Fairbanks Democrat who is a member of the House Finance Committee.

Now the fight will be to move revenue-raising measures out of that committee to address the state's $1 billion fiscal gap, Davies said. "That's one of the reasons we want to get this part of the discussion gone. .... I think it's more fruitful to move the process down the road."

House Republicans, in their weekly press availability, objected to comments that their budget plan is an intentional infliction of pain on Alaskans to build support for a long-range fiscal plan.

Budget cuts "don't make a whole lot of people very happy, and that's understandable," Porter said. "But I think it is important to say at this stage that the often-quoted phrase that this House majority thinks that the citizens of the state have to feel pain before we can discuss revenues is a phrase coined by the third floor (location of the governor's office) and repeated frequently by the media. It is not something that any member of the majority has said."

Porter said the majority is trying to raise public "awareness" of the state's fiscal constraints but not in devastating ways.

"I think it's a responsible first step," said Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican, noting that the Senate still must weigh in and that Democratic votes will be needed to tap reserves.

Mulder said that a reduction in amenities at state parks, for example, would be noticeable and inconvenient but not damaging.

As for cuts in social service programs, Mulder, in response to a question, called on volunteers, churches and civic organizations "to step up and fill those gaps."

Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles sent an unusually irate letter to Porter this morning concerning the budget "bifurcation" that took place in the House Finance Committee Saturday.

The committee cut much of the budget in two, restricting the Knowles administration to half of the annual allocations for the first six months of the next fiscal year, July 1 to Dec. 31, 2002. That is intended to keep Knowles, who must leave office this year, from spending money intended for use by the next governor, who will be sworn in Dec. 2.

In his letter, Knowles called the bifurcation a "sham."

"It is unworkable, irresponsible and unacceptable," Knowles wrote.

Mulder defended the plan, saying that a $50,000 cut in the travel budget for the Department of Education and Early Development last year didn't prevent a substantial increase in travel expenditures.

"They largely ignore the direction we've given them," he said.

Bob King, the governor's press secretary, said that commissioners, such as Shirley Holloway of Education, need to make judgments about the best ways to spend the money that is allocated.

"She took the cut elsewhere," King said. "She still lived within the budget restraint."

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