Amendments in the Department of Public Safety (DPS) House Finance subcommittee turned into a tug of war between rural and urban Alaska.
The Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) program was the focus of debate Thursday, March 21.
The subcommittee adopted intent language encouraging DPS to disperse all money appropriated for VPSOs, rather than allowing some of it to lapse, as it has the last few years.
Rep. Harriet Drummond (D-Anchorage), who offered the amendment, noted that the subcommittee was comprised of five members from Anchorage, two from Fairbanks, one from downtown Juneau, and one from Sitka.
“I see no representatives from Northern or Western Alaska. I think that is a problem,” Drummond said during the hearing. “The entire responsibility and philosophy of managing the state does not come entirely from Railbelt Alaska, which is mostly who is represented around this table.”
Rep. Sara Hannan (D-Juneau) pointed to the $3 million cut to VPSOs proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, which the subcommittee rejected Tuesday, as a sign that public safety in rural Alaska is undervalued.
“In a time where we have all been through campaigns talking about the importance of public safety, to see the only major decrement in the Public Safety budget be to the Village Public Safety Officers program, emotionally, to the people in rural Alaska and to the people working as VPSOs, is a hard slap,” Hannan said.
“I would believe every leader in this building care about the safety of every Alaskan. The thing is, we have an obligation to the people, as well, for our State to be financially sustainable,” responded Rep. Sharon Jackson (R-Eagle River). “Don’t make it seem like we don’t care. We love all Alaskans, every last one of us. However, we must do the right thing so that we all can live a quality of life.”
Rep. Kelly Merrick (R-Eagle River) joined Jackson in opposition to the intent language.
“It has been insinuated by people on this committee that there are others that do not support rural public safety. I personally find that offensive. I think everyone on this committee is committed to increasing public safety in all of our communities, including our villages,” Merrick said later.
Merrick and Jackson also voted against an amendment cutting Alaska State Trooper funding to preserve funding for VPSOs.
Subcommittee Chair Bart LeBon (R-Fairbanks) moved the underlying amendment cutting VPSO funding by $506,000. While he voted Tuesday against Dunleavy’s $3 million cut to VPSOs, LeBon acknowledged the program has lapsed funding in recent years.
“Rural public safety is an important priority,” LeBon said. “I believe there is broad recognition that while a reduction is certainly not preferred, we must find a way to balance spending while also providing for general public safety.”
After LeBon said he chose the $506,000 amount to keep FY 2020 spending in line with FY 2019, Rep. Matt Claman (D-Anchorage) moved to switch the cut from VPSOs to the Alaska State Troopers.
Claman noted that the total budget for VPSOs is $14 million, while the Troopers’ budget is over $120 million.
“I think the damage to rural Alaska by making a cut to the VPSO program is likely greater than the damage to the overall state… by taking these funds from the State Troopers,” Claman said.
Commissioner of Public Safety Amanda Price accused legislators of failing to see the forest for the trees. She noted that, in addition to 50 Troopers dedicated to Western and Northern Alaska, there are 100 village and tribal police officers, what she called an “intricate system in place that provides response.”
“Rural public safety is not exclusive to the Village Public Safety Officer program,” declared Price.
Claman said he rejects Price’s assertion of legislative myopia regarding rural public safety.
He added he would be comfortable increasing overall public safety spending. However, VPSO funding has been allowed to lapse, while excess funding for Troopers has instead been spent on things like TASERs and an airplane.
“It’s an imperfect choice,” Claman said of the cut. “If we’re going to make the reduction, it should come from the Troopers first because they have more capacity to absorb the hit.”
After the subcommittee voted 7-2 in favor of the switch to the Troopers, the $506,000 cut passed 6-3. Rep. Josh Revak (R-Anchorage), who joined Hannan and Drummond in opposition, said it made no sense to cut public safety spending just to match the prior year.
The subcommittee also pulled $250,000 from the Troopers to offset a $250,000 increment for the Civil Air Patrol. The volunteer organization conducts search and rescue flights in rural Alaska.
“I think this is very worthy of our support,” said LeBon, calling the Civil Air Patrol “vital to rural Alaska.”
The amendment passed without objection.
The DPS subcommittee was scheduled to formally close out Thursday afternoon.