Alaska lawmakers weigh budget cuts

JUNEAU — Alaskans this coming week will begin getting a sense for where the House might cut the state budget with subcommittees poised to make spending recommendations. A Senate committee plans to hear legislation that would allow women to get up to a year’s worth of birth control at once under their insurance coverage. And a Senate committee reviewing options for use of Alaska Permanent Fund earnings plans to hear a proposal to constitutionally protect the annual dividend that most Alaskans receive.

Here are a few things to watch for in the state Legislature this week:

BUDGET: House subcommittees tasked with delving into department budgets and making recommendations for cuts are hoping to wrap up their work, with a number of subcommittees planning to close out this coming week. The House Finance Committee, which will draft its own version of the state operating budget, will take into account those recommendations. House Finance Committee co-chair Steve Thompson said the committee is working hard to get the budget to the House floor by March 9.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, House Finance plans to hear an analysis of the economic impacts of the fiscal options facing the state as it grapples with a multibillion-dollar budget deficit amid chronically low oil prices.

BIRTH CONTROL: The Senate Health and Social Services Committee on Wednesday plans to hear SB 156. It would require health insurance companies to pay claims for up to a year’s supply of prescription contraception at one time.

The bill’s sponsor, Senate Minority Leader Berta Gardner, said it’s an issue of convenience, particularly for women in rural areas or who otherwise don’t always have easy access to women’s health services. The Anchorage Democrat said the measure also would reduce unintended pregnancies and provide cost savings in not needing to make repeated doctor or pharmacy visits.

The bill would apply to insurance coverage and Medicaid, though it calls for the state to seek a Medicaid plan amendment. It includes an exemption for certain religious employers.

DIVIDEND: The Senate State Affairs Committee on Tuesday plans to hear SJR 1, a proposal from Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, to put the formula for the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend in the state Constitution.

In looking for budget solutions, legislators are considering the use of Alaska Permanent Fund earnings to help pay for state government. The earnings reserve is the fund from which dividends are currently paid.

The committee has heard several approaches to the use of earnings, including from Gov. Bill Walker’s administration and Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage. Walker has warned that if the state stays on its current track, drawing down on savings, the dividend would be threatened. Both his and McGuire’s proposals would change how dividends are calculated.

Wielechowski said there seems to be widespread agreement that the dividend has become something critical to many Alaskans and should be protected. Putting the dividend in the Constitution is really the only way you can do that, he said.



Alaska Legislature:

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