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Seeking more from Senate

Alaska residents ask for increases to budget at statewide hearing

Posted: Sunday, April 01, 2001

Members of the Senate Finance Committee heard numerous pleas Saturday for increased funding for substance abuse programs and for education.

Sen. Dave Donley, an Anchorage Republican who co-chairs the committee, said afterward he couldn't predict whether any of the requests would be granted when the committee debates amendments to the state's fiscal year 2002 operating budget on Tuesday.

The Senate bill is about $2.237 billion for the state general fund, about $8 million less than passed by the House and almost $70 million under the request of Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles.

Saturday's hearing included statewide testimony by teleconference and in-person testimony from Juneau residents, including more than a dozen students and staff members from the University of Alaska Southeast.

Perhaps the most emotional issue of the day was increased funding for alcohol treatment programs, which advocates said would save substantially on state-funded welfare and corrections costs down the road.

Larry King, a substance abuse counselor in Petersburg, said that while in-patient treatment costs $6,000 to $8,000, jailing someone for an alcohol-related offense costs $41,000 a year.

"It's been proven without a doubt that treatment does work, and the alternatives are pretty grim," King said. "I can't see the logic of cutting funding for these programs."

"A short-term cut is going to cost the state in the long run," said Kevin Murphy, a counselor in Ketchikan. One child with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome will cost the state $1 million over a lifetime, he said.

In an interview, Annalee McConnell, Knowles' budget director, said that the governor's request for $8.1 million in new spending on alcohol abuse programs has been completely ignored by the Senate so far. The House included $1 million in its budget, she said.

"I think the Legislature has raised the entire level of debate on alcohol abuse," Donley said. "I think we're moving forward to address it in a progressive manner. There are a lot of excellent new initiatives this year."

There's the possibility that funding for some treatment programs could be revisited if the Legislature enacts an increase in the alcohol excise tax, he said, adding that it's something he wants to "seriously consider."

Among Southeast residents, funding for the University of Alaska was the most frequently mentioned topic.

The Senate budget includes a $7.4 million bump on top of a $16.9 million increase appropriated last year. But that's well under the request from Knowles and University President Mark Hamilton for another $16.9 million, and also under the House figure of $9.3 million.

UAS Student Body President Tia Anderson said that a strong university will be the foundation for the state economy when oil revenue is gone. But without a commitment by the Legislature, university graduates are less likely to stay in Alaska, she said. "I haven't had an academic career counselor, for example."

K-12 education funding levels also were questioned. While Wrangell School Superintendent Woody Wilson applauded the senators for inflation-proofing pupil transportation aid, he said it's time for a significant increase in the basic per-pupil formula. "We have received no new money from the state for over 16 years now."

Senators also got rebuked for using only $1.2 million of a $25 million tobacco settlement for efforts to prevent smoking. Joan Cahill of Juneau said that the Centers for Disease Control recommendation is that Alaska spend at least $8 million a year and as much as $16 million.

"I would suggest to you that there's something immoral going on here," Cahill said. Rather than use tobacco money to help plug a budget gap, "Please make the hard decisions you should be making as our legislators," she said.

After the first break in testimony, Donley grumbled that everyone was asking for more money.

But there was some support for the five-year budget cutting mission that the Republican majority completed last year, shaving $250 million out of the general fund. Tom Boutin of Juneau said without such fiscal discipline, the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve - which so far has delayed new taxes or use of the earnings of the permanent fund - would be gone.

McConnell said, though, that the Senate is making cuts in areas where the state really doesn't have any choice but to provide services, such as in the correctional system and in the formula-driven programs covered by Medicaid. In many cases, the lack of funding now simply will force supplemental appropriations next year, she said.

McConnell also said that she doesn't consider some of the budgeting legitimate. A finance subcommittee has proposed to move $500,000 out of the governor's budget to boost funding for new state troopers and fish and wildlife officers. The rationale, advanced by Sen. Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican, is that the governor's budget hasn't been tapped enough to cover maintenance costs for an airplane that Knowles frequently uses.

"We're going to try to work on getting the troopers funded the correct way," McConnell said.

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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