House budget subcommittees are on track to maintain funding for education programs and public assistance.  Frustrated minority members staged a walk-out of one subcommittee Monday, March 18.

The House has begun the process of closing out the subcommittees that will make budget recommendations to the full House Finance Committee.

Subcommittees are first voting on each of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s increments and decrements to the FY 2020 adjusted base, the previous year’s budget after one-time items have been removed.

“We are voting on each of the items in the governor’s budget,” Department of Education & Early Development (DEED) subcommittee Chair Dan Ortiz (I-Ketchikan) explained in a hearing.  “These will reflect the parts of the governor’s budget that we accept and the parts of the governor’s budget that we do not accept.”

House Minority Whip DeLena Johnson (R-Palmer) protested that she had only received the list of items scheduled for a vote at 3pm on Friday.

“Every one of these items have been there for a while, and they’ve been presented as a part of the governor’s budget, which you have had in your subcommittee booklet for at least three weeks,” Ortiz told her.

“I’m having a hard time being part of this process,” Johnson replied.  “I feel like we’re being excluded from the process as a minority.” 

Johnson suggested the use of the adjusted base budget was improper.

“I think it’s intentionally confusing,” she said.

The bottom of every document from the Legislative Finance Division defines each relevant column. 

The DEED documents explain that the FY 2020 adjusted base is the FY 2019 budget “less one-time items, plus FY20 adjustments for position counts, funding transfers, line item transfers, temporary increments… from prior years, and additions for statewide items…  The Adjusted Base is the ‘first cut’ of the FY20 budget; it is the base to which the Governor’s and the Legislature’s increments, decrements, and fund changes are added.” (emphasis added)

“I understand what you are asking us to do.  I don’t understand why you are asking us to do this,” Rep. Ben Carpenter (R-Nikiski) told Ortiz.

Ortiz called an at-ease.  Rep. Josh Revak (R-Anchorage) immediately walked out.  After ten minutes of seemingly spirited debate, Carpenter also walked out.

“Given the change to the way that we’re doing business here today, I feel like this is a heavy-handed action by the majority,” Johnson said when the subcommittee was back on the record.  “I think the minority vote and voice is not being heard.  I think my constituents and the people who elected me deserve better, and as such, I will not be participating today.”

House Finance Co-chair Neal Foster’s (D-Nome) aide, Brodie Anderson, later explained that the subcommittee process is a return to the action of prior legislatures.

The difference is that members are being given the opportunity to vote on the governor’s increments and decrements.  Previously, those would have been automatically included by the chair in the preliminary subcommittee recommendations, then subjected to amendment by subcommittee members.

“This year, we decided that the most open and transparent way would be to have a conversation about each one of the individual budget action items for all the members to include, rather than having it pre-selected by a chair or something like that,” Anderson said.

Members will still have the opportunity to submit amendments at the next DEED subcommittee meeting on Wednesday.

Johnson’s argument about receiving the list of action items on Friday with only weekend days to consider them is a dramatic departure from the 30th legislature.  At that time, the House minority, of which Johnson was also a member, complained that House majority members weren’t working late enough into the evening on the budget.

The inconsistency suggests the minority’s complaints may have less to do with process and more to do with frustration at being in the minority, and thus, an inability to sustain Dunleavy’s proposed cuts.

Without Minority Present, DEED Subcommittee Maintains Education Programs

Without Johnson, Revak, and Carpenter present Monday, there were no minority members to move Dunleavy’s suggested cuts to early education programs Head Start, Parents as Teachers, and Best Beginnings.  Unless an amendment passes Wednesday to raise or lower their funding, the DEED subcommittee will recommend to House Finance that the funding stay at FY 2019 levels.

Other Dunleavy cuts that went unsupported include the elimination of the following: pre-Kindergarten grants; the Alaska State Council on the Arts; the Online With Libraries (OWL) program; the Live Homework Help program; Mt. Edgecumbe Aquatic Center; and the Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho (WWAMI) medical education program, which allows 20 aspiring physicians per year to be educated at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) via the University of Washington.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the minority members chose not to be present,” commented House Education Chair Harriet Drummond (D-Anchorage).  “If they wanted to move one of these items that is simply not being adopted, that would have been their opportunity.”

“I believe it’s really unfortunate that any representative charged with representing roughly 17,000 to 18,000 Alaskans would knowingly and willingly step away from that responsibility under a manufactured lack of clarity,” added Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky (D-Bethel).  “I believe that the actions that we took today protect early learning, support services for small rural schools and public libraries, equity for broadband access.  I just find it highly, highly unfortunate that any member of this body would step away from that responsibility and that constitutional obligation to Alaskans.”

There were no minority members to move Dunleavy’s 50-percent reduction to DEED travel, but Ortiz announced that he will introduce an amendment Wednesday for a 25-percent travel reduction.

The subcommittee’s actions maintained about $16 million in unrestricted general funds (UGF) for travel and the various programs.

However, they also held down UGF spending by $25 million due to fund source changes.  Dunleavy has proposed eliminating a variety of designated funds (DGF) and switching them to UGF, which increases the deficit.

The subcommittee did not address Dunleavy’s $300 million cut to K-12 classroom funding.  That is technically a formula that falls outside the DEED budget.

DHSS Subcommittee Restores Most Public Assistance Funding

While minority members didn’t walk out of a Department of Health & Social Services (DHSS) subcommittee hearing on Saturday, they offered little in the way of defense for Dunleavy’s cuts.  Instead, they repeated in nearly every vote that Dunleavy’s budget should be the foundation of any subcommittee recommendations, rather than the adjusted base.

“We should be starting with the governor’s budget,” declared House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt (R-Anchorage).

Though Dunleavy’s proposed increments passed without objection, most of his proposed decrements failed to be adopted by the DHSS subcommittee.  Those that failed mostly did so along caucus lines.

Pruitt couched the votes against Dunleavy’s cuts as votes to reduce Permanent Fund dividends (PFDs).

“That was a totally false statement,” Rep. Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage) responded. 

Tarr noted that it is still early in the budget process.  No decisions have been made regarding the PFD.

“I don’t want anyone listening in to think that somehow funding some of the essential services of the Department of Health & Social Services is resulting in a reduction to the PFD.  That’s just not true,” she said.

The subcommittee rejected Dunleavy’s proposal to cut adult public assistance by $14.7 million.  The move would return the State to 1983 levels of assistance under federal Maintenance of Effort rules.

“This would require the federal government’s approval,” explained Erin Shine, aide to DHSS subcommittee Chair Jennifer Johnston (R-Anchorage).

While Johnston called Maintenance of Effort a “self-perpetuating machine,” she explained her opposition to the cut, saying, “I’m not ready to go back to 1983.”

“This rule change results in a 30-percent decrease in the benefit that’s given to the poorest Alaskans at a time when we still continue to be in a recession,” House Health & Social Services Chair Ivy Spohnholz (D-Anchorage) added.

A similar $17 million cut to tribal assistance also failed along caucus lines.

“It’s going to require renegotiating our relationship with the federal government,” Johnston said of the tribal assistance cut.  “I think we can get there, but in the meantime, it would be taking back responsibility that I’m not sure if this State has the capacity for.  And I think, ultimately, it could cost the State money for short-term.”

Johnston joined minority members in a vote to cut burial assistance by $600,000, but the move failed 4-4.

Dunleavy has proposed to cut a $17.7 million Hold Harmless program that keeps people who receive public assistance from being kicked off the public assistance rolls when they get a sudden boost in income from the PFD.  The program does not use general funds and therefore does not impact the deficit.

Tarr noted that if the provision were removed, people would have to reapply for public assistance the month after receiving a PFD.  There is already a backlog of applicants at the Division of Public Assistance.

“One of the things about the PFD is it really helps with income equality.  If you think about the people who are receiving those benefits, the reason they’re receiving them is because of their income status,” Tarr said of public assistance.

“I understand my colleagues thinking that it helps the poor, but to me, it keeps the poor poor.  When they receive money, they have the opportunity to do something else or to make other choices.  We don’t give them that opportunity as long as we are holding Hold Harmless,” argued Rep. Sharon Jackson (R-Eagle River).

The Hold Harmless provision is in AS 43.23.240.  Though Dunleavy has proposed to defund it, it is not one of the eight bills he has submitted that would repeal existing statute.

“This is one of numerous elements of the governor’s budget proposal that requires legislation, and I think that it’s sloppy budgeting to include this in there when we know that we need to have legislation introduced to enact this anyways,” said Spohnholz.  “If the governor thinks this is a good idea, he should request that legislation be introduced and make the case for it.”

“If we chose to allow statutes to drive us, not the constitution, we’d find ourselves in a world of hurt,” responded Pruitt.

“Did I hear you say you feel it’s all right to ignore statute?” Johnston asked Pruitt.

“No,” Pruitt told her.  “Ultimately, the budget itself, and the budgetary process sometimes, I believe it overrides because that’s the constitutional authority.”

Pruitt noted that statute includes administration of a Tok visitor center, yet the legislature has not funded it for several years.

“Has it created a constitutional crisis?  Nope.  But we probably should get it off the books,” Pruitt said.

During the last legislature, Pruitt had a bill (HB 63) that addressed the Tok visitor center in part.

However, HB 63 did not “get it off the books”; it merely transferred the visitor center from the Department of Commerce, Community, & Economic Development (DCCED) to the Office of the Governor, leaving it in statute.  The bill died.

Pruitt has filed no bills this session that would get the visitor center — something that concerns him so much he brought it up during a DHSS subcommittee hearing — off the books.

Defunding of the Hold Harmless provision failed along caucus lines Saturday.

DHSS Subcommittee Maintains Senior Benefits Payments and Community Grants

One repealer bill that Dunleavy has submitted (HB 60) would eliminate cash payments to low- to moderate-income elders through the Senior Benefits Payment Program.  It would cut the budget by $20 million.

“It is not required for the bill to pass for this to be defunded,” Shine said.

But HB 236, extending the program, just passed last year.  The only legislator to vote against it was Rep. David Eastman (R-Wasilla).

“The timing on this is just really bad.  For any senior who might have been considering whether they could afford to stay in Alaska, we reauthorized the benefit last year, but then now, so quickly after that, we’re kind of pulling the rug out from under them,” Tarr said.

Jackson joined majority members in opposing the cut.  It failed 2-6.

The subcommittee also failed to support a $2 million cut to public health nursing, which has sustained graduated cuts since FY 2018.

“The number of immunizations for influenza in this state has dropped by over half, and the result is that we’ve more than tripled the number of flu cases in the state of Alaska.  We’ve seen a 30-percent reduction in the number of treatment and screening visits for sexually transmitted diseases, and in that same time, we’ve seen a 31-percent increase in gonorrhea. And we’re having a syphilis outbreak currently that has us at 40-year all-time-high rates for a very serious disease that can have lifelong implications,” said Spohnholz.  “I think this would be an example of something that would be really pennywise and pound foolish.”

Johnston said she may offer an amendment on public health nursing.

Johnston joined minority members in support of $2.2 million in cuts to community matching grants.  Grant recipients, which include food banks and shelters, have to find matching funds from private or municipal donors.

Tarr noted that one of the recipients in Anchorage, the Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis (AWAIC) shelter, is always at capacity.

“These grant programs can go away, but the demand for those services is not going to go away,” she warned.

“I think it becomes really dangerous to Alaska if we only have conversations around our budget as an abstract math problem.  As we look at some unprecedented cuts across the board, we only continue to push burden down onto small non-profits that have been a safety net for a long time.  I just find that to be immoral,” Zulkosky said.

Both cuts failed 4-4.

Zulkosky led the charge against closure of the $2 million Nome Youth Detention and Treatment Facility, saying DHSS hasn’t done enough research on the move.  The cut failed 3-5.

The subcommittee also tried to address deep cuts to the Alaska Pioneer Homes (APH) on Saturday.

Dunleavy has proposed cutting UGF spending at APH by $18 million.  In response, APH has filed to double its rates.

Spohnholz proposed increasing Dunleavy’s recommendation of $15 million in payment assistance grants to $20.7 million.

“I’d like to propose a compromise position that would allow for a higher rate of payment subsidy to ensure that nobody is put in a position where they wouldn’t be able to pay an increased rate, and also for rebasing of the Medicaid reimbursement rate at the Pioneer Home,” she said.

But minority members balked, saying action on Dunleavy’s budget items was supposed to be an up-or-down vote, with members’ amendments to come at a later date.

Johnston, who supported Spohnholz’s conceptual amendment, backed down, postponing discussion on APH until the next meeting Tuesday.

Process Doesn’t Seem to Hinder Law, Judiciary Subcommittees

No minority members of the Department of Law subcommittee walked out on Friday to protest the process.  During that hearing, all motions on Dunleavy’s increments and decrements passed without objection.

A Judiciary subcommittee hearing also managed to vote on increments Monday without minority protest.  It even had a caucus-splitting debate on a $3.1 million increase, suggested by the court system and forwarded by Dunleavy, to re-open the courts on Friday afternoons.

“This may be more of a ‘nice to have’ than necessary,” said House Rules Chair Chuck Kopp (R-Anchorage).

House Judiciary Committee Chair Matt Claman (D-Anchorage) agreed, saying testimony from the court system indicated a pay raise for support staff was a higher priority.  He will propose an amendment to that effect on Wednesday.

“That really is our top priority,” confirmed Doug Wooliver, deputy administrative director for the Alaska Court System.  “It is very difficult to attract and retain employees in the court system.” 

But Wooliver also said the court system would prefer to be open Friday afternoons if funds allow it.

Eastman argued that having the courts open Friday afternoon would encourage law enforcement because it would signal that the courts are not a limiting factor to prosecution.

“I think a speedy trial is a constitutional right,” added Rep. Adam Wool (D-Fairbanks).  “I support keeping them open.  Is it a direct impact on public safety on any given afternoon?  Not necessarily.  But if I was locked up in pre-trial and I had to wait longer because I couldn’t get a trial date, I’d be not happy for that.”

The motion failed 4-4, with subcommittee Chair Andy Josephson (D-Anchorage) and Rep. Laddie Shaw (R-Anchorage) joining Wool and Eastman in support of the increment.

Closeouts will continue Tuesday with the departments of Administration, Corrections, Environmental Conservation, Fish & Game, and DCCED.

In addition to the Pioneer Homes, the DHSS subcommittee will consider Dunleavy’s proposed $225 million cut to Medicaid and the privatization of the Alaska Psychiatric Institute.  Johnston warned the Tuesday evening meeting is likely to run long.

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  1. ” I think my constituents and the people who elected me deserve better, and as such, I will not be participating today” says Rep DeLena Johnson.

    Now that’s a productive ‘governing’ strategy!

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