A key Republican senator said this morning that his caucus wants to maintain the state's food safety and sanitation inspection program at its current level.
But as public testimony on the proposed 2003 budget continued before the Senate Finance Committee, there were many concerns expressed about proposed cuts in alcohol treatment.
Meanwhile, a House panel considered a constitutional amendment that would compel the governor to rank spending priorities from most important to least important.
Senate Majority Leader Loren Leman, an Anchorage Republican, told reporters that the elimination of $1.4 million for the food safety and sanitation program included in the House-passed version of the budget will be reversed in the Senate.
The House axed $1.2 million in fee-supported inspections of grocery stores and other retail food outlets, and $200,000 in general funds for sanitation inspections of public facilities such as day care centers, schools, senior centers and pools, according to Janice Adair of the Department of Environmental Conservation.
A Senate finance subcommittee already had recommended restoring $800,000 of the cut. Leman said the full committee will accept that recommendation and also fund the balance through "receipt authority," an accounting method that would allow legislators to move fee-supported services out of the state general fund. o fee increases are included, and the program should be able to function as before, Leman said. However, he said ultimately he wants other large municipalities to take over the inspections, along with the fees for them. Currently, only Anchorage does its own food inspections.
The Republican majorities in the House and Senate have agreed upon a general fund budget for 2003 of about $2.3 billion, although they have different caps on spending for various agencies.
The "hold-the-line" budget includes no overall increase from the current fiscal year, although formula- and population-driven programs are going up. To maintain those programs, legislators are looking for nearly $100 million in cuts elsewhere.
Among the cuts that are getting a lot of attention in public testimony are a $4.4 million, or 20 percent, reduction in substance-abuse treatment grants and a $2.5 million, or 50 percent, cut in proposed spending on tobacco prevention efforts.
The Alaska Federation of Natives released a statement this week saying that it's "alarmed and disappointed" with the cuts in treatment programs..resident Julie Kitka said the Legislature is "seeking to abdicate its responsibility to provide critical life-and-death public health needs of its citizens."
The state cuts would cost Alaska $600,000 in federal funds next year, as well, according to Pamela Watts, executive director of the state's Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.
Recovering addicts gave emotional testimony this morning.
"My life depends on maintaining sobriety," said Scot Wells of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. "The state desperately needs more beds. ... If I had had to wait 120 days to enter treatment, I probably would not have survived."
The proposed cut "will close some programs," said Kevin Murphy of Ketchikan, president of a state association for substance-abuse treatment professionals.
"Why not look at the permanent fund or an income tax?" suggested Robert Henrickson of Mat-Su.
Testimony was to continue this afternoon, with 7:15 to 9 p.m. set aside for Juneau residents.
Republicans contend that budget-cutting was made harder because the administration of Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles refused to identify areas where reductions would have the least impact.
To remedy that in future administrations - Knowles leaves office in December - Sen. Pete Kelly of Fairbanks is proposing a constitutional amendment to force such prioritization whenever the Legislature requests it. The bill passed the Senate on a 14-5 party-line vote earlier this month.
"We're going to amend the constitution so that these two branches of government can communicate," Kelly said.
House State Affairs Chairman John Coghill, a North Pole Republican, said half-jokingly that Kelly is "rewriting the constitution one sentence at a time." Kelly also has sponsored or supported proposed constitutional amendments to allow the Legislature to impose a hiring freeze on the executive branch, to tighten the cap on state spending and to change the vote total for tapping budget reserves.
"I'm struggling with the whole issue," Coghill said this morning. He didn't allow a committee vote on the bill.
Jack Kreinheder, representing the Knowles administration, said that a list of priorities is "simplistic." For example, in the Department of Revenue, managers would have to decide whether it's more important to issue permanent fund dividend checks or to collect oil revenue, he said. "We just feel it's not an effective approach to budgeting."
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.