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Senate passes $2.56 billion operating budget

Lone Democrat in opposition says there isn't enough money for cities

Posted: Sunday, April 17, 2005

Alaska Senate Republicans and Democrats passed the $2.56 billion operating budget Friday with a vote of 18 to 1, congratulating themselves on joint efforts.

The lone resistance, Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said not enough money was given to municipalities. Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, did not attend the session.

The Senate's version of the budget already passed by the House of Representatives, HB 67, was slightly less and included more funding for tourism and domestic product marketing, the Alaska Military Youth Academy and seafood safety monitoring and testing.

The Senate Finance Committee reviewed about 50 amendments before sending it to the floor.

Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, said there was some fighting behind the scenes but that lawmakers agreed from the beginning of the process to pass the budget jointly.

"We may come at this from different philosophical angles but were all out to view what's in the best interest to the state," he said.

Ellis said Republicans showed good faith by adopting a number of Democratic amendments.

Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, said there was another motivation to cooperate: the 2006 campaign. Last year, politicians tried to use actions in the Legislature to smear the other opponent, he said.

"The 60 percent in the middle didn't see the difference and thought it was a bunch of kids playing in the sandbox," Wilken said. He said he hopes this vote sends a new message to the public.

This year's budget is about $255 million larger than last year's. Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, called it "bigger, brighter, better and bureaucratic."

Higher oil prices, increases in tourism, the dream of opening a natural gas pipeline and other symptoms of prosperity were factors in the confidence to spend more dollars, Wilken said.

"Pay now instead of later," was the concept Wilken drove into the bill, while foreseeing harder times down the road when the state has to absorb losses in federal funding and pay higher Medicaid costs.

French said the budget was much better than years before, but he was disappointed it did not include municipal revenue sharing

"This is one of the few states in the nation that does not help out local cities," he said.

For 20 years, the state shared an amount up to $22 million with local governments that funded part of basic services, such as fire and police departments and city insurance.

In efforts to balance the budget, Gov. Frank Murkowski ended the program in 2003; municipalities continue lobbying to reinstate the program.

Earlier this session, the Alaska Legislature approved $6.5 million to help qualifying cities in a time of rising fuel costs.

French said he was not pressured to vote with his party.

"Sometimes you just have to vote your conscience," he said.

The operating budget heads over the House for approval from a conference committee.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com



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