Operating budget headed for Senate

House approves $3.45 billion in state spending

Posted: Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Alaska House on Tuesday passed a spending plan for state agencies over the protests of some Democrats who said it does little to resolve the state's looming fiscal problems.

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Lawmakers voted 29-10 to approve spending $3.45 billion from state coffers on the operating budget, about $350 million over the current year's budget.

House Finance Committee Co-chairman Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, heralded some new spending in the budget, including the addition of an investigator for the Alaska Public Offices Commission, a senior fraud investigator at the Office of Public Advocacy, extra money for salmon marketing, new housing units at Juneau and Palmer prisons and additional guards at the Fairbanks prison to deal with overcrowding.

While the Department of Health and Social Services took a $50 million financial hit, Chenault said $37 million was put aside to cover expected increases in the state's share of Medicaid.

The budget also includes an additional $1.8 million to cover implementation of the new petroleum profits tax and salaries for tax auditors and another $1.3 million for work on Gov. Sarah Palin's gas line bill.

Still to be decided, separately from operating budget legislation, are big ticket items like education, municipal revenue sharing, paying down the unfunded liability in public employee and teacher retirement systems and senior assistance.

"We addressed a lot of needs, not all the needs, but this is our best shot right now," Chenault said.

But Democrats said the budget process left a lot to be desired. Rep. Harry Crawford, D-Anchorage, a new member of the House Finance Committee, said he could not support the budget because he felt his efforts to make it better were ignored.

The committee turned down all budget amendments proposed by Democrats. Six more were rejected on the House floor on Monday.

Crawford said he wanted to see more emphasis on programs that are geared to ward off social problems among Alaskans early on before they become a burden on the state. He pointed to remedial and early education programs to give students a leg up and substance abuse treatment as a way to reduce prison populations.

"I don't see any vision in this budget, any change or any attempt to try to do something different for our future. I don't see a vision for Alaska and how we are going to make it a better place," Crawford said.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, echoed Crawford's concerns.

"It's such a party line process, it's almost like logic doesn't matter," Gara said.

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