Senate OKs $9.82 billion state operating budget

Bipartisan coalition pushes measure through; additional spending bills voted down

Posted: Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Alaska Senate passed a $9.82 billion state operating budget Wednesday, an amount that was called both staggering and inadequate in debate on the floor.

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The largest part of the budget comes from the federal government but includes $3.43 billion in state general fund revenue.

The budget passed along caucus lines, with the 15 members of the bipartisan leadership coalition known as the Senate Working Group pushing the budget through.

They also voted down additional spending bills from the Senate Republican minority, championed by Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole.

The working group is led by Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, and includes Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, as well as Southeast Alaska's other two senators, Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, and Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee with responsibility for the operating budget, called the final figure troubling after recent years of growth.

"This is a staggering growth rate of 60 percent in just a few short years," he said.

Some projections of the state's finances show a deficit as early as next year, he said.

The budget passed on a vote of 15-5, and all the attempts to amend the budget were voted down by the same margin.

Earlier in the process, several amendments that had passed in the House were made in committee, Hoffman said. More than 200 people testified at committee hearings, he said.

"Alaskans, we heard you, and within our means we listened," he said.

Those increases included more money for tourism marketing and assuming control of water quality regulation from the federal government, as well as previously reported increases for small-charter-school funding.

Stedman proposed $3 million in one-time funding for marketing the state to tourists, as well as another $500,000 targeting independent travelers.

"We in Southeast get a huge impact from the residents of the Lower 48 who come up and visit us," he said in committee.

Additionally, the committee restored money for assuming responsibility for water quality regulation. Elton said industries that stood to benefit from being able to work with state regulators instead of federal officials have agreed to split payments for the program, at a cost of $1.5 million.

"This is a compromise," Elton said. "The state pays some and the applicants pay some."

Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, commended Elton's work on the compromise.

"We may look back on it as one of the most significant things that we do this year," he said in committee.

Dyson is a member of the minority caucus. On the Senate floor Wednesday another member of that caucus, Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, urged the conference committee that will combine the House and Senate budgets to fully restore the funding.

Despite the size of the budget, it doesn't include the expected increase to K-12 school funding and retirement costs. Those will be done later, senators said.

• Pat Forgey can be reached at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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