Locals crowded a local library Tuesday night to voice concerns about possible budget cuts during a town hall meeting hosted by Juneau’s trio of freshman lawmakers.
Sen. Jesse Kiehl and Reps. Andi Story and Sara Hannan, fielded questions about Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s plans to cut $1.6 billion from the state operating budget and his suggested $20 million cut to education funds in a supplementary budget proposal.
Kiehl said he believes it’s likely a sign more education cuts are coming.
“I’m going to do everything I can to protect school funding,” Kiehl promised.
Story, who served 15 years on the Juneau Board of Education before being elected to the Legislature this fall, and Hannan, a retired school teacher, offered similar statements earlier this week.
“I want teachers, and parents and staff to focus on outcomes. Not the budget,” Story said.
“If this bill if went through as the governor proposed it, (school districts) may be three-fifths through the fiscal year before you ask for this money. That’s the part that really throws me,” Hannan said.
In the Mendenhall Valley conference room Tuesday night, it was standing room only.
Douglas resident Karen Walker asked if they had any idea what the fate of the Alaska Pioneer Home elderly care system would be.
“People without pensions have no safety nets, or few. The gray tsunami is coming,” Walker said.
Answers varied. Hannan wondered if government services like Pioneer Home might need to be self-sufficient, and if general funds going toward it would be zeroed out.
Kiehl said it would be a battleground issue, but he was not sure.
“Senior benefits programs are a moral obligation,” he said.
Hannan said she thought the math behind Dunleavy’s budget proposals doesn’t add up. His budget is due to the legislators by Feb. 13.
“We are waiting for some reality to sink in,” Hannan said. She wondered aloud how the Glenn Highway could stay open if billions of dollars are cut from the operating budget. She questioned whether the highway could be plowed in winter.
Kiehl told the audience there are a lot of experts in the community who know in greater detail how certain cuts or legislation might affect the community.
“None of us are experts in everything,” Kiehl told the audience. “We rely on you. Please stay in touch.”
Bridget Weiss, Juneau School District Superintendent, chimed in, saying the audience could use their specialized knowledge to help the legislators see the bigger picture.
Weiss encouraged the crowd to connect the dots, “from our baseline of experience to advocacy.”
Climate change and House leadership
Another resident asked about the confirmation hearing of Commissioner Jason Brune, who has been tagged to lead the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Kiehl had attended his confirmation hearing just before the town hall. Kiehl said it was “impressive” that Brune acknowledged that humans had a role to play in climate change, considering the Dunleavy administration’s apparent lack of prioritization of the issue.
Hannan said that Brune, a former and land and resources department director with the Cook Inlet Regional Inc. Alaska Native corporation, was one of the few commissioners in Dunleavy’s cabinet who had any sort of relative experience to the work will be doing for the state. This brought laughter from the room.
Story talked about the House’s lack of organization, which has prevented the body from being able to get any work done. She said one of the most important things she can do as a representative at this point is get to know her fellow legislators, as the House remains deadlocked with a no majority caucus or leadership.
“We have to work with 60 other people and the governor. Building relationships is the heart of things,” Story said. “If I don’t have a good working relationship with them I can’t deliver.”
• Contact reporter Kevin Baird at 523-2258 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @alaska_kev.