House panel trims $150 million off Palin's budget plan

Dems fail in effort to add money for schools and seniors

Posted: Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Efforts by minority Democrats to add money to the state operating budget for the university, a preschool program and seniors failed Monday as lawmakers in the Alaska House began debate on a $3.45 billion operating budget for the next fiscal year.

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The bill, which passed out of the House Finance Committee on Friday, trimmed about $150 million off the spending plan proposed by Gov. Sarah Palin but still raises spending by about $350 million, or 10 percent, over the current fiscal year, which ends July 1.

The House proposal also leaves several major items still to be decided including education funding, municipal revenue sharing and paying down the unfunded liability in the public employee and teacher retirement systems.

"We know there's still some major issues out there," said Finance Committee Co-chairman Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, who has said that because the three issues are integral to each other, they must resolved together.

Republican lawmakers also removed the governor's proposed $34 million dollar appropriation to reinstate a cash payment program for some Alaska seniors.

On the House floor, Reps. Woody Salmon, D-Beaver, and Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, tried to reinstate the program at $29 million for the approximately 13,000 seniors who were still part of the Alaska Longevity Bonus program when Gov. Frank Murkowski cut its funding four years ago.

Salmon said it would restore a promise made to seniors.

"Alaska has a long history of caring for seniors. The longevity bonus recognized the contribution Alaska elders made to the state," Salmon said.

Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, told lawmakers that funding could not be restored without statutory changes to the program and to do so without a bill being passed was inappropriate.

Hawker and members of the House leadership meanwhile are pushing a tiered needs-based cash payment that would be open to all qualifying seniors.

The longevity bonus program, which began phasing out in 1994, was closed to new enrollment.

Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, said while he has been an unwavering supporter of the original program, he believes the debate should take place in committee, not the House floor.

"As much as I support the longevity bonus, as much as I want to push the green button, I cannot because this is not the proper forum for it," said Lynn.

Democrats also failed to add $14 million to the University of Alaska budget that they said would allow it to leverage about $20 million in federal dollars and other revenues for work force development programs.

Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said the university is not just an academic ivory tower but a community college that also offers vocational-technical and remedial programs.

But Chenault said the university could restructure its priorities and move funding into the work force area in order to tap more federal funds.

Another amendment that would have provided about $1 million in university student loans to low-income Alaskans was also turned down.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, distributed information from a national survey that said Alaska distributes the lowest amount of grant aid to low income students of any state. Gara said Alaska also ranks last in the number of low income people who attend college.

Finance Committee co-Chairman Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said Alaska's university tuition is affordable compared to many states, and he suggested families could use their children's Permanent Fund Dividend to help with their college tuition.

Majority lawmakers also turned down a $630,000 addition to the Head Start program. Sponsor Rep. Andrea Doll, D-Juneau, said flat funding over the years has closed the preschool program in six communities, reduced classroom hours, limited program options and scaled back transportation among other things.

Doll said the state could avoid having to pay for costly special education for older children by preparing them for school ahead of time.

"Some will ask can we afford this? I ask, 'Can we not afford it?"' said Doll.

But Meyer said the state is currently funding the program at $6 million to match federal dollars.

"Is it enough? I don't know. It's never enough with education but at a certain point you have to balance your budget," Meyer said.

The budget will be back on the floor Wednesday for a final vote before the budget plan moves on to the Senate.

Conferees from the House and Senate will meet later in the session to work out a final budget.

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