The House debated substantive amendments to the operating budget Wednesday, April 10, rejecting cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System and Medicaid.

The budget that House Finance sent to the floor cuts unrestricted general fund (UGF) spending by $257 million.

House minority members made no move Tuesday to deepen those cuts.  They chose instead to offer unenforceable intent language and cuts to designated general fund (DGF) spending that don’t impact the deficit.

House members finally seemed ready to address UGF Wednesday.

The first amendment added $1.6 million, divided between prosecutors and public defenders.

Majority members added roughly the same amount just for prosecutors and staff in the Department of Law subcommittee, but the increment was removed by the full House Finance Committee.  House Finance Co-chair Tammie Wilson (R-North Pole) said it only addressed one aspect of the criminal justice system.

Rep. Andy Josephson (D-Anchorage), who offered the amendment Wednesday, said it balanced out the need for additional prosecutors while reducing trial delays that come from insufficient numbers of defenders. Wilson signed on as a co-sponsor.

Josephson said there was 44-percent turnover in the Criminal Division within one year.

“What this says is that the workload for prosecutors and their staff is intolerable,” he said on the House floor.  “A number of prosecutors, because of the intensity of the workload, are leaving at young ages.”

“It meets this compelling need to respond to this excessive workload of prosecutors,” Josephson said of Amendment 36. 

“What we have before us is a budget that is unsustainable,” Rep. David Eastman (R-Wasilla) said in opposition.

Eastman said he would be inclined to support the amendment with offsetting cuts.

“We have $257 million of offsets in this budget,” replied Josephson.  

Josephson said adding prosecutors is in alignment with Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s “tough on crime” stance.

“Public safety is a vital and critical function of government,” Josephson said.  “If we don’t have this amendment, we’re not as tough on crime.”

The amendment passed 32-7.  Rep. John Lincoln (D-Kotzebue) was excused.

Attempts to Offset Prosecutors With Cuts to Public Radio, Human Rights Commission

Eastman next offered an amendment as an example of his offsets.  It would have taken $1 million from public radio and $2 million from public health nursing to re-open the courts on Friday afternoons.

“This is part of our emergency system in the rural villages.  If we took it away, we would actually be putting a lot of people at risk,” House Finance Vice-chair Jennifer Johnston (R-Anchorage) said of the cut to public radio.

Johnston also opposed the cut to public health nursing.

“These are the frontline health care providers throughout Alaska,” she explained.  “We are currently in a syphilis outbreak.”

Josephson said there has been “no serious detriment” from having courts closed on Friday afternoons.  Emergency hearings are still held for protective orders or child-in-need-of-aid (CINA) cases.

“This amendment is a question of priorities,” Eastman said in defense of his amendment.

Eastman said the legislature has a responsibility to the public.

His amendment to cut public radio and public health nursing then failed, 12-27.  Representatives Kelly Merrick (R-Eagle River), Laddie Shaw (R-Anchorage), and Sara Rasmussen (R-Anchorage) joined majority members in opposition.

Another Eastman amendment would have defunded the Alaska Human Rights Commission, moving that money into the Criminal Division.  Eastman said those who might otherwise petition the Human Rights Commission could go to court instead.

Josephson noted that petitioners are people who, for example, believe they have not been allowed to interview for a job due to discrimination.

“There’s no guilt here; there’s a finding of liability,” he said.  “They need a remedy, and this legislature saw fit decades ago to create the Human Rights Commission as that remedy.” 

Eastman responded that the Commission is an “experiment that has run its course.”

The amendment failed 16-23.  Wilson and Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux (R-Anchorage) joined the minority in support.  Rep. Sharon Jackson (R-Eagle River) joined the majority in opposition.

Another offset amendment, this time from Rep. George Rauscher (R-Sutton), would have taken $100,000 from the Human Rights Commission and $900,000 from the Civil Division of Law to repay John Sturgeon.  Sturgeon recently won a case in the US Supreme Court clarifying the State’s sovereignty over navigable waters within its borders.

“The State really didn’t do anything to help him,” Rauscher said.  “We sure benefitted a lot from it.”

“There’s probably a federal rule that pays a substantial share of those fees,” Josephson said in opposition.  “Presumably, the federal government owes Mr. Sturgeon some money.” 

Rauscher’s amendment failed 16-23.  Rep. Bart LeBon (R-Fairbanks) joined the minority in support.

The House voted to undo $2.6 million in cuts to its own budget, the last action taken by House Finance.

Rep. Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage) said the legislature needs that $2.6 million to pay the costs of likely special sessions away from Juneau.

“We don’t know how many special sessions we’re going to have,” Tuck said.  “We heard from the governor’s press availability yesterday that he plans on having special session after special session after special session.”

The amendment passed 24-15.  House Minority Whip DeLena Johnson (R-Palmer) joined majority members in support.  Wilson and LeDoux joined minority members in opposition.

House Rejects Cuts to Ferries and Fisheries, Barely Fails to Keep Dairies

The House took a number of votes Wednesday that impacted industries across the state.

Shaw proposed a $191,000 cut to commercial fisheries.

“It doesn’t appear to reduce services,” he said of his amendment.  “In fact, it just keeps funding levels where they were last year.”

House Majority Whip Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak) said that the reduction would limit the Department of Fish & Game’s (DFG) ability to conduct research and thus force DFG to manage fisheries more conservatively.

“The fishermen in my district have spoken that we need to make sure the weir counts are available,” agreed Rep. Sarah Vance (R-Homer).  “This is part of the economic engine in the fisheries resource.”

Rep. Dave Talerico (R-Healy) noted that the State has returned to the federal government $2 million in unused Pittman-Robertson funds, monies collected from the sale of firearms and ammunition to be used for conservation.  Rather than using general funds for fisheries research, Talerico suggested the State could “get more creative” in the use of Pittman-Robertson funds.

Shaw’s Amendment 41 failed 16-23.  Vance joined majority members in opposition.  Wilson and Johnston joined minority members in support.

An amendment from Rep. Josh Revak (R-Anchorage) that would have cut workers’ compensation for commercial fishermen failed by a wider margin, 12-27.

Amendment 42, by House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt (R-Anchorage), was a proposed fund source switch for biotoxin testing required of the shellfish-growing industry.

Pruitt encouraged a switch from the Commercial Passenger Vessel Compliance Fund to the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) Fund, saying AMHS operates in Alaska waters year-round, while cruise ships operate seasonally.

Rep. Dan Ortiz (I-Ketchikan) called the amendment “yet another creative way to deplete the Alaska Marine Highway System of their resources.” 

The fund source change failed along caucus lines.

Rep. Colleen Sullivan-Leonard (R-Wasilla) next offered a $41 million cut to AMHS.  In House Finance, Sullivan-Leonard offered a similar cut that would have eliminated service to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and reduced services to Alaska ports.

“Right now, we have a very challenged Marine Highway System,” she said.

Stutes called the cut arbitrary and “just appalling.”  She said that, like the terrestrial highway system, AMHS needs State money to function.

The amendment failed along caucus lines.

On paper, Rasmussen’s Amendment 49 was a $50,000 fund source change from UGF to program receipts for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  She said it would encourage DNR to support its budget with more user fees, like those collected at trail heads.

As a trail user herself, Rasmussen said, “I’m willing to pay a little bit more for the greater good.”

Rasmussen opposes an income tax.

In effect, Amendment 49 would increase hollow receipt authority because there is no indication the DNR would be able to collect the $50,000 in DGF.  However, the UGF cut of $50,000 is real.

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D-Sitka) the “nickel and dime” approach to budget cuts represented by Amendment 49 is better suited to the subcommittee level.

The cut to DNR failed 13-26.  Eastman and Jackson joined majority members in opposition.

In Dunleavy’s budget, the State dairy monitor was eliminated, reducing spending by $180,000.  A House subcommittee restored it, but it was later cut by House Finance.

The cut would effectively close the state’s only commercial dairy, Havemeister Dairy in Palmer, which would be unable to commercially sell milk without the regulatory seal.

Rauscher offered an amendment to pull $50,000 from the Office of Information Technology just to cover the cost of inspections, rather than the full cost of the position.

“They’re the ones who came up with this amendment,” Rauscher said of Havemeister. “They want to be a part of toting their own weight.” 

Rauscher noted that Havemeister is responsible for 45 percent of the business of a blow mold factory in Palmer that makes plastic jugs.  In addition, the dairy buys large amounts from Alaska Mill and Feed.

“Alaska says we’re open for business,” Rauscher said.

His amendment failed 19-20.  Wilson, LeBon, Rep. Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage), and House Rules Chair Chuck Kopp (R-Anchorage) joined minority members in support.

An amendment passed just after 7:15pm, offered by Rep. Delena Johnson (R-Palmer), restored spending for a State dairy inspector, giving Havemeister at least a moment of respite. It passed, 24-13.

Medicaid Dodges Another Cut

An amendment from Rep. Cathy Tilton (R-Wasilla) that would have cut $25 million from Medicaid failed along caucus lines.

Johnston and House Health & Social Services Chair Ivy Spohnholz (D-Anchorage) noted that the House Finance Committee already cut $58 million as a compromise.

Johnston said that the Department of Health & Social Services (DHSS) can seek additional savings without legislative involvement.  However, if the legislature appropriates too little, DHSS would have to come back and request a supplemental.

The House continued debate on amendments late into the afternoon.  House Speaker Bryce Edgmon (I-Dillingham) encouraged members to keep comments brief, since there were quite a few amendments left.

“We have a fair amount of work in front of us,” he said.

The House adjourned shortly after 7:30pm. They’ll get back to work tomorrow at 10am with about 20 amendments left waiting in queue.

The Senate Finance Committee will take public testimony on the operating budget Thursday and Friday.

On Thursday, the Mat-Su and Fairbanks will testify during the committee’s 9am hearing.  Juneau will testify from 1pm-2:15pm.  Nome, Bethel, Kotzebue, and Unalaska are scheduled from 2:15pm-2:45pm.  Anchorage will testify from 2:45pm-4:45pm.

On Friday, Kenai, Kodiak, and Dillingham will testify from 9am-9:45am.  Glennallen, Seward, and Homer are scheduled from 9:45am-10:30am.  Ketchikan, Wrangell, and Petersburg are between 1pm and 2pm.  Utqiagvik, Tok, and Delta Junction testify from 2pm-2:30pm.  Sitka, Cordova, and Valdez are scheduled from 2:30pm-3:30pm.  Finally, off-net callers are scheduled from 3:30pm-5pm.

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