Legislators reluctantly pass budget

Posted: Sunday, April 13, 2008

Leading members of both houses of the Alaska Legislature denounced the growth of the state's operating budget Saturday as "unsustainable," growing 23 percent to $11.2 billion next year.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Then they overwhelmingly voted for the budget, and sent it on to Gov. Sarah Palin for her signature.

The capital budget, which boosts state spending even more, has yet to be passed.

"We cannot sustain the growth that we have," said Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage, and House Majority leader.

Samuels said either an oil price decline, or the certainty of a decline in oil production, will leave the state unable to pay for services, possibly within a few years.

"We cannot sustain it, it will not work, and Alaskans will suffer," he said.

Samuels then recommended that other legislators vote for the budget.

Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Kodiak, who is now running for Congress, said she and many of her colleagues campaigned as fiscal conservatives when they ran for the Alaska Legislature.

"How do fiscal conservatives end up putting out a budget like this?" LeDoux asked, before announcing her support of the bill.

"I'm going to vote for this, but we've got to slow down somewhere," agreed Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell.

Those legislators were among many who said they were torn, but had good reasons for voting for the huge budget bill.

"When there was no money, needs went unmet," Samuels said.

The Legislature has agreed to develop a long-term fiscal plan, which several lawmakers said they hoped would help limit spending in future years.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the Senate did what it could to hold down the rate of growth of government spending, including cutting more than 130 full-time positions.

More needs to be done or the state will not be able to afford to operate the government as oil production declines and before North Slope natural gas begins to flow.

"We need to continue to search for a long-term solution to balance the budget until we come to first gas," he said.

In the House of Representatives, the budget passed 33-6. In the Senate, it was 15-5. In both houses, the action was to adopt the final budget agreement.

Members of majority caucuses typically agree to vote for their group's budget, and some said Saturday they were bound by that agreement.

Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said that spending was unsustainable and would have to be cut eventually.

"I think some of the things we're promising, we're going to have to take away," he said.

He said the Legislature was spending too much because oil money, not taxes, pay for it.

"We've got a broken system in Alaska because the money doesn't mean anything, we're not having to reach into our left rear pocket," Kelly said.

House Minority Leader Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, was among just a handful of House members who voted "no" on the budget.

She joined other Democrats who voted against the budget, but some of them complained more about what money was spent on than how much was spent.

Kerttula and others said money should be spent on things now that will save money in the future.

"Now is a time to do a few things structurally where we can work on our future," she said.

Rep. Andrea Doll, D-Juneau, was among those voting in favor of the budget. She praised programs to boost the economy, such as a construction academy, and to help people, such as those dealing with fetal alcohol syndrome, mental health and drug courts and children's services.

"Good for us for what we're doing, and what we're trying to do," she said.

In the Senate, all votes were cast along caucus lines. Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, a member of the Senate Bipartisan Working Group, voted for the budget with other majority members.

"We continue to spend on a trajectory that is going to run into a deficit," said Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, and Senate Minority leader. His five-member caucus opposed the bill.

"A day of reckoning will come; it would be better to start dealing with that situation before we're at the edge of the cliff," he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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