After hearing from hundreds of Alaskans around the state, House and Senate leaders shed a little light on their budget outlook and process Thursday.
Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, the co-chair of the House Finance Committee, said around 1,800 Alaskans weighed in on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget during recent community meetings around the state organized by the committee and during House Finance Committee public testimony. Foster said that by a 5-to-1 margin, members of the public who spoke to the committee were opposed to the state making the extensive cuts proposed by the governor.
Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said while most people were opposed to the cuts, they still heard from people on the other side of the spectrum.
“It’s not to belie the fact that there are a lot of people out there who want a full PFD and would like to say deep cuts, probably deeper cuts,” Edgmon said, “but the vast majority of people we heard did not give us that message.”
Now, legislators continue their work on putting together their own version of the budget in response to Dunleavy’s proposal. House Finance Committee meetings next week will dive deeply into formulating a budget proposal.
Foster said the committee is starting not with the governor’s proposed budget but with last year’s budget. They’re starting there and building from that, Foster said.
He also said the issue of Permanent Fund Dividends will not be addressed in the committee’s meetings next week. Representatives are looking at the budget and the PFD separately, he said.
“Once we’ve done that we’ll have a good idea at what we’re looking at in terms of the overall size of the budget, and what funds can be used for dividends,” Foster said. “That issue will be taken up later, separately from the operating budget.”
In a press conference later in the morning, Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin (a member of the Senate Finance Committee), said the Senate Finance Committee will likely look at the budget and the PFD together.
“I think they’re going to do it all together, to see what comes over from the House on the budget and then see what kind of legislation’s going to be proposed by the governor,” Olson said. “That’s how we in the Senate are looking at it and taking it in that order.”
Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, raised an interesting possibility to members of the press Thursday morning, saying, “if there were ever a time for a two-year budget, this is probably it.” This wouldn’t be a situation where the Legislature would put together two budgets or one budget for two years, she said, but it would be an overall approach of letting agencies and organizations know that these cuts are eventually coming and that they should take the time to find other funding sources.
“Although we won’t put a second budget together,” Wilson said, “I think what you’ll see is the talk will go this way on, ‘Here’s these funds, but next year, expect this.’”
Wilson said this idea was at the center of a Wednesday meeting about Medicaid funding, where lawmakers spoke about cuts to Medicaid happening in two phases. Wilson said lawmakers have already been talking to the University of Alaska in these terms, asking university officials to explore other funding sources in the future as state funding might drop in coming years in order to balance the budget.
While the senators who spoke Thursday were extremely critical of Dunleavy, the House leaders said they hope to work together with the governor.
“It’s certainly my hope and I think it’s the coalition’s hope that we do meet with the governor when he comes back into Juneau next week,” Edgmon said, “and that he’ll have heard some of what we heard as well that Alaskans want to have a certain level of essential services.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.