Alaska editorial: For Anchorage, capital budget cuts make sense

Posted: Thursday, May 29, 2008

Gov. Sarah Palin cut $268 million from the capital budget on Friday. That's a lot of money, but still less than 10 percent of the entire $3 billion capital budget.

For the most part, the cuts make sense.

In Anchorage, for example, the governor applied her local-match-or-leveraged funds criteria. That meant $2 million for swimming pools (matched by local taxpayers with a $2 million bond). That meant no $17.5 million to expand Anchorage police headquarters.

Police headquarters was a tougher cut for Anchorage to take, especially given the governor's emphasis on life, health, transportation and public safety as her main interests in the capital budget.

But as Mayor Mark Begich pointed out, overall, Anchorage did well, with about $136 million in improvement projects.

So did the rest of Alaska.

There was talk that the governor might go easier on the capital budget to win legislative support for the TransCanada gas line proposal that lawmakers will debate next month. But she vetoed $37 million more in capital projects this year than in 2007, although the vetoed percentage was smaller this year because the budget was bigger.

Some worthy items were trimmed rather than zeroed out. A $1 million request to expand Safe Harbor, the transitional housing motel in Anchorage, was halved to $500,000. Budget director Karen Rehfeld said the governor supports the program, but the city and private donors could cover the balance. Turf fields for high schools were similarly trimmed rather than killed. The state will provide seed money and let either the School District, city or private sector make up the difference.

Some comparisons prompted head scratching. For example, $40,000 for smart boards at Bartlett High School made the cut; $30,000 for smart boards at Baxter Elementary did not. What's the difference?

Some cuts were easy. Gov. Palin said "killer shrubs and Zamboni blades" had no business in the capital budget. She referred to the removal of mugho pines at Klatt Elementary School and a blade sharpener for the Homer Hockey Association. Even with a surplus as fat as Alaska's, some pork is just too embarrassing.

Some items should have been cut and weren't. The $2 million for a polar bear conference was left in the budget, although Palin and Speaker of the House John Harris have agreed to take a second look at just what they'll do with the money. Whatever they do, they shouldn't waste it on a lawsuit to fight the bear's threatened status; Alaska is better off working for national carbon emissions reductions.

Some good appropriations remained. A $2.5 million addition to the needs-based scholarships at UA will provide college money for 800 to 900 more Alaskans. A new Health Sciences Building at UAA for $46 million remains. This is a smart investment to meet a growing need.

And there are long lists of road, renovation and repair projects that will help Alaska use surplus of high oil prices to catch up on deferred maintenance.

"It's still a very, very large budget," the governor said. At $2.7 billion, it sure is. And some of the vetoed projects may come back in future budgets, if they get more local support. Both Palin and Karen Rehfeld said they expect to see some of these requests, like the Anchorage police headquarters, back next year - maybe higher up priority lists, maybe with matching local money.

Alaska has legitimate capital spending needs and the means to meet them. The governor's cuts weren't perfect, but by and large she was right to stick with her criteria and cut accordingly.

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