Amid deadline, a look at budget proposals

JUNEAU — Approval of state spending bills and plans to pay for them are among the unresolved issues as the constitutional deadline looms for the Alaska Legislature to finish its work.

House and Senate negotiators have reached agreement on many areas of the proposed state operating budget. But the budget hasn’t been closed out yet, and there’s the potential for items they’ve agreed upon to be reopened for further consideration.

Items adopted so far include deep cuts to the University of Alaska system, elimination of funding for early childhood programs and a denial of funding to help establish a unit within the Department of Law that would focus on use of force by law enforcement, deaths in correctional facilities and allegations of government corruption or fraud.

Part of the holdup in finalizing a budget has been the difficulty the House has had in trying to agree on how much to change Alaska’s oil and gas tax credit system. Legislative leaders have seen resolution on the credits issue as key to making further progress on the budget and revenue measures.

A House committee finalized a version of the credits bill Thursday seen by some as an effort to try to break the logjam. Whether it does remains to be seen. The bill is expected to advance for a floor vote.

Under the constitution, regular sessions can last 121 days, a mark lawmakers will reach Wednesday. The constitution allows for up to a 10-day extension.

Here is a look at where things stand with selected operating budget items:

Public integrity unit: Negotiators have nixed funding requested by Gov. Bill Walker’s administration for a public integrity unit within the Department of Law. John Skidmore, director of the department’s criminal division, said the department proposed setting up the unit through some reorganization and funding from the Legislature. He said he would need to see a final budget before knowing how the department might proceed.

Early education: Versions of the budget passed by the House and Senate scrapped funding for pre-kindergarten grants. The conference committee also has recommended not funding Best Beginnings and Parents as Teachers.

Minority Democrats have seen the programs as a smart investment. But a House subcommittee in recommending they be cut said they fall outside of what are considered “mission critical” programs at a time when the state faces a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

Public broadcasting: The conference report matches Walker’s funding request for state operating grants for public radio, which represents a cut, but does not include grant money for public TV.

Bill Legere, general manager of KTOO in Juneau, said the cuts would be a blow to public TV stations, particularly to the small station in Bethel, and could mean less coverage of state government from Gavel Alaska, which broadcasts legislative happenings in Juneau.

University: The conference committee has adopted a roughly $50 million cut in unrestricted general funds to the University of Alaska system that the system has said could cost or have an impact on hundreds of positions.

The system is undergoing a streamlining process but with that level of cut, tough decisions would have to be made without the luxury of time to carefully weigh various trade-offs, President Jim Johnsen has said.

In a statement following the committee’s action last month, Sen. Pete Kelly called the action proof that everything is on the table as the state faces challenging times. Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said he supports the university system.

“This is what it looks like when you have to make difficult choices,” he said.

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