Senate Finance proposes $9.1B operating budget


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The Senate Finance Committee has proposed a $9.1 billion state operating budget, comparable in size to the package recently passed by the Alaska House.

The version of the bill, unveiled Wednesday evening, was about $190,000 smaller than the House version and $1.3 billion smaller than the authorized level of spending at the start of the current fiscal year, according to a Legislative Finance Division summary.

The committee heard public comment Thursday, and the schedule called for additional public comment Friday. The bill could still be amended before heading to the floor.

While the total size of the budget package is comparable, there are differences. Any discrepancies remaining between the two versions, once a bill passes the Senate, will have to be worked out by House and Senate negotiators in a conference committee.

For example, the Senate version includes $1.4 million for the Alaska Youth First Program, a grant program aimed at helping young people learn about and prepare for careers. Gov. Sean Parnell requested $2.4 million for the program — funding that was cut by the House.

Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, had said she didn't get adequate information from the Department of Labor and Workforce Development during the subcommittee process on the impact of the program and how many youth were helped.

The Senate labor subcommittee, in its report, said it was making the funding a one-time increment before an expected review next year.

The Senate Finance bill also cut $750,000 from the $1.4 million requested by Parnell to allow the state to move toward taking over certain environmental permitting from the federal government. Officials with the Department of Environmental Conservation have said they already had given up $400,000 for the effort for next year as part of Parnell's budget request in recognition of the state's tight budget situation.

The Legislature last year approved allowing the state to evaluate the benefits, costs and consequences of taking the lead role from the Army Corps of Engineers in the dredge-and-fill permitting program. The House cut the requested funding in its version of the budget for the coming fiscal year, with Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau, noting that since it was a new program it was among the first to be looked at for possible cuts.

A Senate subcommittee also proposed reallocating $211,000 expected to be left over from a shellfish beach monitoring program to go toward the dredge-and-fill-related activities.

Deputy Environmental Conservation Commissioner Lynn Kent on Thursday said that level of funding would probably slow down significantly the overall evaluation of assuming primacy. She said the department would likely instead focus more intently on areas in which the state could see more immediate benefit, including in continued work with the corps on greater flexibility in mitigation options for those seeking wetlands fill permits.

The Senate bill added $500,000 for a school nursing and school health program and cut funding for the high school graduation exam, which several bills have proposed scrapping.

The House and Senate Finance versions did not include funding for the addition of 15 new village public safety officers, as proposed by Parnell, citing the current vacancy rate within the program's ranks. The Senate Finance public safety subcommittee, in its report, said given the difficulty in hiring for all the currently authorized positions, "it does not seem prudent to increase the positions until and unless the vacancy/turnover rate is improved."

Neither the Senate nor the House version has dealt with the state's nearly $12 billion unfunded pension liability issue, which remains up for discussion with a session scheduled in about a month. Parnell proposed moving $3 billion from savings toward addressing the obligation, as a way to lower future annual payments and ease budget pressures, an idea that's gotten mixed reaction.

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