House budget subcommittees restored funding Tuesday, March 19, for public broadcasting, the Alaska Legal Services Corporation, Village Public Safety Officers (VPSOs), Alaska Grown, and the Ocean Ranger program, among others. 

Subcommittees have been voting on each of the items in Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s FY 2020 budget, which reduced unrestricted general fund (UGF) spending by $1 billion.

On a busy day when House members were bouncing between multiple active meetings, the Department of Administration (DOA) subcommittee provided a strong rebuke of Dunleavy’s proposal to eliminate all funding for public broadcasting, a $3.6 million cut.

A cut to public broadcasting satellite infrastructure didn’t receive a single supporting vote after the subcommittee learned that the satellites are necessary for the State’s emergency alert system.

There was also unanimous opposition to defunding the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission (APBC), a nine-member body of private citizens that distributes grants to 27 public broadcasting stations.

“I’m really, really concerned about the safety aspect of things,” Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux (R-Anchorage) said during the hearing.  “Eliminating the commission really wouldn’t impact public safety, would it?”

“As long as the stations remain viable in their communities, I guess you could say that,” replied Mollie Kabler, executive director of Alaska Public Broadcasting, Inc.

However, Kabler noted that DOA would have to administer the grants in the absence of APBC.

“I think in journalism, we’re always looking for a layer of insulation against political influence,” Kabler said.

“I’m trying to get to whether the commission really is needed,” said LeDoux, unsatisfied with Kabler’s response.

“If this commission did not do it, would another body, through the Department of Administration, be charged with doing that?” asked Rep. Andi Story (D-Juneau), seeking clarity on the grants.

“There’s statute that states that the Broadcasting Commission must provide the Department of Administration the list of grantees and those amounts.  So we cannot, by statute in the Department of Administration at this time, create and determine which stations will get grant funding,” explained Cheryl Lowenstein, administrative services director for DOA.

If the legislature were to agree to eliminate APBC, all other public broadcasting funding would lapse, Lowenstein said.

Public Radio and Television Funding Restored

After unanimously rejecting elimination of APBC, the committee failed to adopt Dunleavy’s cuts to grants for public radio and the four public television stations.

Kabler said that, while there are no stations entirely dependent on State funding, some federal funds that stations receive require matching from other sources, like the State.  Therefore, smaller stations would be at risk of losing federal funds.

“The grant is not designated to public safety, but it’s a core part of the mission,” Kabler added.

“Healthy democracy really depends on oversight of the legislature, oversight of local government, and Alaska public radio plays that role,” Rep. Zack Fields (D-Anchorage) said.

Rep. Adam Wool (D-Fairbanks) asked if the public television stations could consolidate for efficiencies.

That would actually jeopardize federal funding, Kabler told him.

“Strong integration is the best approach, and that’s what we have in place right now,” she said.

Only Rep. Sarah Vance (R-Homer) voted for Dunleavy’s public radio cut.  Subcommittee Chair Jennifer Johnston (R-Anchorage) joined her on the vote to cut public television.

Vance explained that she will submit compromise amendments on public broadcasting cuts with the goal of escaping a line-item veto.

The DOA subcommittee unanimously rejected a 50-percent reduction to travel for the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (AOGCC), the Office of Public Advocacy (OPA), and the Public Defender Agency (PDA).  Subcommittee members expressed concern that those agencies would be unable to perform their duties with the reductions.

“In your opinion, would they be able to maintain this type of reduction and still maintain their constitutional obligations?” Vance asked of PDA.

“If I was to speak to a public defender, that answer would be no,” Lowenstein replied.

The subcommittee did unanimously adopt 50-percent travel reductions to other agencies.

Via a Johnston amendment, the subcommittee unanimously rejected budget language that would have allowed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to move money anywhere within the department.  That language would have violated the legislature’s constitutional authority as the appropriating branch of government.

Subcommittees Make ALSC Whole and Reject Sending Inmates Outside

Like the DOA subcommittee, the Department of Commerce, Community, & Economic Development (DCCED) and the Department of Corrections (DOC) subcommittees unanimously rejected the unconstitutional OMB language.

House Finance Co-chair Tammie Wilson (R-North Pole) chaired both of those subcommittees.

“It is our responsibility as a legislature to determine where the money goes, not necessarily how much of it is spent.  But this particular [language], if it were to pass, would allow OMB, on their own, to go up and down the line into anything, making the transparency very hard to figure out,” Wilson explained in the DCCED hearing.

The Alaska Legal Services Corporation (ALSC), which provides pro bono legal services to low-income and vulnerable Alaskans, was facing a $450,000 cut to its DCCED grants.  That money was restored in DCCED subcommittee using excess funds from the Alaska Gasoline Development Corporation (AGDC).

The subcommittee unanimously rejected a move to replace funds from the Power Cost Equalization (PCE) Endowment Fund with general funds.

Dunleavy is seeking to eliminate PCE, which lowers rural energy costs.  But Wilson noted PCE has a six-percent return on investment, as opposed to a two-percent return for the general fund.

In the DOC subcommittee hearing, Wilson was disturbed that Commissioner of Corrections Nancy Dahlstrom was touring Goose Creek Correctional Center and unavailable for questions, even by phone.

“I have never been a chair of a subcommittee where the commissioner has decided that something that was previously on her schedule that was not an emergency… was important enough to [not] be a part of this process,” Wilson said.

Without Dahlstrom present to defend Dunleavy’s cuts, the subcommittee unanimously rejected a plan to ship a minimum of 500 inmates Outside, instead electing to place the inmates in community residential centers, also known as halfway houses.

Wilson said that keeping people closer to their families while grouping them together by need, such as mental health or substance abuse treatment, has a greater probability of reducing recidivism than simply expanding the prison system.

In light of that decision, the subcommittee unanimously, and without discussion, rejected Dunleavy’s attempt to close the Wildwood Correctional Center in Kenai.

The subcommittee adopted without objection a move to eliminate the Professional Conduct Investigation unit established under Gov. Bill Walker.  The unit, which was formed to conduct internal investigations, will have its work turned over to the Alaska State Troopers.

“We are the only state now that does not have a professional conduct unit in which Corrections does its own investigation.  The reason that we went to that path was the recognition, in fact, that Troopers didn’t have sufficient resources to do those investigations,” said Rep. Matt Claman (D-Anchorage).  “I don’t believe anything has changed, so my optimism that anything meaningful is going to be done to get drugs out of our prisons with this change is pretty limited.” 

“I think the horse has left the barn, as they say, on this particular one, so I’m not going to oppose the change,” Claman continued.  “But these are the kinds of changes from administration to administration that makes it harder and harder for places like Corrections to do their job effectively.”

The DCCED and DOC subcommittees officially closed out.

Speaker Edgmon: Budget Proposals “Not Thought Out Very Well”

Subcommittees were generally receptive Tuesday to Dunleavy’s 50-percent executive branch-wide travel reductions, but some of the travel reductions and other cuts appeared to have been proposed without regard to fund source or department impact.

For example, Dunleavy’s budget would cut the travel of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority (AMHTA) by $40,000 of AMHTA’s own money.  Further, the cut doesn’t impact the deficit because it is not UGF.

“How does it help the State’s fiscal situation to be cutting their travel?” LeDoux asked during a Department of Revenue (DOR) subcommittee hearing.

She said the cut was micromanagement of AMHTA.

The move failed 4-4, as did a cut to the travel of the AMHTA long-term care ombudsman.

A proposal to replace $360,000 of PCE funds with general funds failed 3-5 after subcommittee members noted that Dunleavy has yet to introduce a bill to dissolve PCE.

Fields said such a bill “doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming law.”

The DOR and the Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs subcommittees, chaired by Rep. Bart LeBon (R-Fairbanks), joined others in unanimously passing an amendment removing the unconstitutional OMB language mentioned above.

LeDoux had similar comments about travel in the DMVA subcommittee.  Dunleavy proposed to cut travel for the Alaska Aerospace Corporation (AAC), which has its own designated funds.

“If it’s not general fund, if it’s not saving the State any money, and it’s just this idea that we’re going to cut everybody’s travel by 50 percent, even when it’s not impacting us, the State, at all, I don’t know why we’d be micromanaging like that,” LeDoux said.  “What’s the reasoning behind that?”

LeDoux got no answer from the Dunleavy administration.

Rep. George Rauscher (R-Sutton) was the only subcommittee member to support the travel reduction to AAC.

In the Department of Fish & Game (DFG) subcommittee, Vance was the only member to support the travel reduction for commercial fisheries, the State Board of Fish, and the Board of Game.  Again, Vance said she would bring an amendment for a 25-percent reduction to avoid a veto.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon (I-Dillingham) noted that some of the travel reductions would cut federal funds, while House Rules Chair Chuck Kopp (R-Anchorage) said the boards are under scrutiny for not traveling to the places they regulate.

Alaska has a reputation of having the best-managed fisheries, noted House Fisheries Chair Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak).

“They need to travel to manage these fisheries,” Stutes said.

Dunleavy’s proposal to eliminate management of State Special Areas was not moved, indicating it does not have legislative support.

The budget would also transfer the directors of the Division of Habitat and the Division of State Subsistence Research to OMB.  Those positions would then have no ties to DFG.

“This is nuts,” exclaimed Stutes.  “If we don’t perform our constitutional duties in relation to subsistence, we could end up with the feds managing our subsistence, instead of the State of Alaska.  And that’s very frightening.”

“This sort of paints the picture of why I’m having some trouble with a lot of these proposals.  They’re not thought out very well,” Edgmon said.  “This, to me, seems to be more than just a reach.  I can’t support this because I don’t know what, in the scheme of things, the actual cost is to the Division.”

“A cash transfer at Fish & Game’s expense to the governor’s office does not hold water with me,” Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D-Sitka) added.  “There needs to be a lot more analysis and presentation on that before that feels like a credible proposal.  Even that it’s being proposed is, I think, problematic.”

Both moves failed.

Ocean Ranger, Alaska Grown Programs Survive While VPSO Funding Restored

The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) held a brief hearing on Dunleavy’s proposed increments and decrements, shortened because it did not include members of the House minority.

The subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Dan Ortiz (I-Ketchikan), who also chairs the Department of Education & Early Development (DEED) subcommittee.  Minority members walked out of a DEED subcommittee hearing Monday, claiming the subcommittee process was deliberately confusing and intended to sideline the minority.

As in that hearing, there were no minority members to move Dunleavy’s cuts Tuesday.  

Dunleavy proposed to eliminate the Ocean Ranger program, which uses fees charged to cruise passengers to pay for onboard pollution monitors.  No majority members moved to support that cut.

In addition, no one moved to support a $180,000 cut to a State dairy monitor that would result in closure of Havemeister Dairy in Palmer, the only commercial dairy in Alaska.

House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt (R-Anchorage) walked in about 15 minutes after the meeting started and after nearly all business was complete.

In contrast to DEC, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) subcommittee held a meeting longer than 90 minutes with full participation from the House minority.

In that hearing, members failed to adopt Dunleavy’s cuts to agriculture programs, like Alaska Grown and the Agriculture Revolving Loan Fund that helps small farms access capital.

Rep. Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage) said she based her vote on 59 letters of opposition from all over the state.

“There has been significant opposition to the proposed cuts,” she said.

Rep. Kelly Merrick (R-Eagle River) was the only member to support the cut to Alaska Grown.

The subcommittee also rejected the closure of four recorder’s offices across the state.  As places to publicly record land issues, the offices are frequently used by miners.

“I remain concerned that this consolidation does not give us efficiencies, but in fact, will discourage some of our smallest, independent miners from being able to complete their tasks in a timely manner,” said Rep. Sara Hannan (D-Juneau).

Consolidation of the recorder’s offices failed.  Surprisingly, Rep. Dave Talerico (R-Healy), a miner, was one of three members to support the cut.

Finally, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) subcommittee declined a $3 million cut to the VPSO program.

“We do not currently have adequate public safety in rural Alaska,” Hannan said in opposition to the cut.

“The VPSO program is a critical part of the State’s responsibility to provide equitable safety to all Alaskans,” agreed Rep. Harriet Drummond (D-Anchorage).  “We need to be supporting this program, not cutting it, to ensure our rural communities are being adequately served.”

But Merrick said the VPSO program has lapsed roughly $3 million each of the last several years.

“I see no reason to appropriate more than they need,” Merrick argued.  “We need to align this program’s budget with actual expenditures.”

The VPSO cut failed 4-4.

House subcommittees continued work late into the afternoon and evening Tuesday, with the Department of Health & Social Services (DHSS) subcommittee considering a $225 million UGF cut to Medicaid.

All House subcommittees are on track to close out this week, at which point they will send their recommendations to the full House Finance Committee.

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