Budget: What to cut?

House Majority Leader Ralph Samuels, right, House Speaker John Harris, center, and Rep. Kevin Meyer answer questions Jan. 16 during a press conference on the first day of the state legislative session.
As the legislative session opened in Juneau Jan. 16, state lawmakers cast doubts on whether Gov. Sarah Palin will be able to achieve significant cuts in the state budget this year.

House Speaker John Harris said Jan. 16 that he is waiting to hear more on Palin’s ideas for a $150 million reduction, but said education, and health and social services budgets — mostly for Medicaid — dominate the state operating budget. Harris said cuts in these areas are unlikely.

“We’re not going to reduce education. It isn’t going to happen. As for Medicaid, it’s going to cost more this year because the federal government is reducing its share of funding,” Harris said in a press briefing.

Palin said Dec. 15 that $150 million in spending reductions will be a key part of her budget policy.

House Finance co-chair Mike Chenault said the Legislature must put more money into public employee retirement accounts. He also said the Legislature must consider proposals for reinstituting municipal revenue sharing and senior citizens’ longevity bonus payments, and putting more money into the area-cost differential component of state school funding.

Senate Finance co-chair Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, said Palin will have to come forward with specific recommendations for programs to be cut to achieve her goal. He said “unallocated” budget reductions, where agency administrators are told to find places to cut themselves, would be unacceptable.

“She needs to decide on what should be funded. Without that, it’s hard for us to see what her priorities are,” Hoffman said in the press briefing.

Palin may have to do that on an accelerated schedule, however. Chenault said the House would like to get its main business, the budget, done in 90 days, and doing that might require a shortening of the customary 45 days given to the governor to make amendments to her budget proposal.

On the gas pipeline, lawmakers said they will give Palin some running room. “We’ll be patient. We’d rather have something good than something fast. If gets to be June, however, we may have a problem,” said new House Majority Leader Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage.

Samuels said he hopes to see Palin taking concrete action on gas issues in a matter of weeks. Chenault said it is critical that the state move forward on the gas project. “We can’t sit around for three or four years waiting on a pipeline.”

Legislators, meanwhile, will use the time to get themselves up to speed on gas pipeline issues, Samuels said.

Samuels, one of a handful of lawmakers who were deeply enmeshed in gas pipeline issues last year, will help organize workshops to brief new legislators on the intricacies of the gas project.

All in all, the Legislature is facing a significant amount of work, which will be none the easier on a shortened schedule.

Despite the fact that a ballot measure approved in November limiting the session to 90 days won’t take effect until next year, Rep. Harris and others in the House said it was a good idea to start this year. “The public asked for that,” Harris said.

Leaders in both houses said they were open to the idea.

Senate President Lyda Green said the Senate hadn’t been consulted yet on the plan, but she was willing to talk with her House counterparts about it. “I certainly look forward to the conversation,” she said.

Minority Democrats in the House said they’d help the Republican majority move the session along — if the Republicans worked with them.

“We’re going to try to do our own work and be out in 90 days as the people have decided,” said David Guttenberg, a member of the Democratic leadership from Fairbanks.

To do that, he said, the Democrats “need to have the spirit of cooperation from them that they’ve asked of us.”

One Democrat sounded skeptical, if not opposed to a shorter session.

“I don’t think we need an arbitrary timeline,” said Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau. The Legislature needs to get its job done, not race through things to meet a deadline, she said. Some Republicans also acknowledged that with less time there would be less work done and fewer bills passed.

Tim Bradner can be reached at [email protected].

Juneau Empire reporter Pat Forgey contributed to this article.

11/09/2016 - 10:17am