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Citizens pan cuts to programs

Senate panel takes testimony on plans to trim state budget

Posted: Friday, April 19, 2002

Alaska, which might have the worst problem with alcoholism in the nation, shouldn't cut state funds for treatment programs, Juneau residents told the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.

The committee completed more than 10 hours of public testimony on the state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The state's general fund is being held constant at nearly $2.3 billion, in light of the state's ongoing fiscal gap. But with formula-driven programs increasing, the Republican majority is cutting nearly $100 million in other funding.

"I know it's a hard job that you all have to balance a budget and to prepare a budget for Alaska," said Marc Wheeler, a member of the Juneau Assembly. "But I think we've elected you to have a vision for our state, and I would just hope that your vision would include a vision for our children and our families in Alaska, that each child in Alaska has the ability to grow into a healthy adult free of alcohol and drug abuse."

The tentative budget, which still must be reconciled with a different version passed by the House, includes a $4.4 million reduction in treatment grants. That means longer waiting lists and a caseload reduction of 1,300 people, according to an impact statement by Janet Clarke, administrative services director for the Department of Health and Social Services.

Stephen Sundby, administrator for Juneau Recovery Hospital, said the proposed cuts would close his 16-bed substance-abuse treatment facility.

"We just could not sustain any more cuts in funding," he said.

There are other pressing areas of concern, according to local residents.

Several University of Alaska Southeast students called for "full funding" of the board of regents' request for a $16.9 million increase in the system. Now, the budget includes no year-to-year growth, with the result that $9.5 million in cuts would be needed to offset increases in labor contracts and "non-discretionary fixed costs."

"As a citizen, student and voter in Alaska, I understand that it's critical to fully fund the University of Alaska system this fiscal year," said Mark Graves. "Full funding means that Alaskans will not lose their jobs. Full funding means that Alaskans will stay in the state to pursue their higher educational goals, making them more likely to stay in the state when they start their careers."

For the most part, senators didn't respond to the numerous pleas for more money.

The lopsided testimony is in response to the Legislature's five-year budget-cutting mission from 1996-2000 and the failure to follow that up with new revenue, said Juneau Democratic Sen. Kim Elton.

"I think Alaskans are thinking about their future in a much more holistic way," Elton said this morning. "The rules of the process are getting in the way of solutions to real problems. The rules are that we're going to cap spending. ...

"The way the cuts were allocated had nothing to do with the much vaunted 'missions and measures,' " he said, referring to the Legislature's method of identifying goals and performance measurements for state services. "The only decisions we're making as we turn the ship of state into a skiff is who's going to get to ride."

State agencies began weighing in this morning.

Deputy Revenue Commissioner Larry Persily warned senators that a cut of more than $334,000, along with the failure of the Legislature to fund the third year of labor contracts, would mean a reduction in efforts to collect money for the state.

Corrections Commissioner Margaret Pugh said the proposed budget for her department is "unreason-able and illogical."

Due to recent legislation lengthening criminal sentences, Alaska's prison population increased 4 percent in the past year, or four times the national average, Pugh said. While the Senate Finance Committee proposes to cut the department below the current appropriation, there are 23 bills pending to increase sentences even more, she said.

Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles has proposed $400 million in new revenue, including an income tax, cruise ship head tax and an increase in the alcohol excise tax. The House remained deadlocked this week on what a new revenue package might look like, and only an alcohol tax has been considered in the Senate.

"The two of us have been trying to get small measures to the floor and haven't given up at all yet," Senate President Rick Halford said during a media availability with Finance Co-Chairman Dave Donley earlier this week. "But the House has taken huge bites and not been able to come to agreement on any of them."



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