State Sen. Bert Stedman, center, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, presides over a committee hearing Thursday. The committee on Monday approved an $8.4 million fast-track supplemental budget to address staff shortages in processing food stamps, public defenders and legal advocates for vulnerable residents. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

State Sen. Bert Stedman, center, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, presides over a committee hearing Thursday. The committee on Monday approved an $8.4 million fast-track supplemental budget to address staff shortages in processing food stamps, public defenders and legal advocates for vulnerable residents. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

Bill with funds to address food stamps backlog goes to governor

Legislature gives near-unanimous approval to hiring extra staff to fix months-long backlog

Emergency funding officials say will resolve the crisis-level backlog of food stamp applicants within the next two months got final approval from the Alaska State Legislature on Monday.

The $8.4 million emergency supplemental budget contains about $3.1 million to hire about 30 employees to help with the backlog at the Division of Public Assistance, which processes food stamps and other benefits including Medicaid. Deb Etheridge, the division’s director, told lawmakers shortly before the floor vote that the end of the backlog that affected at least 8,000 Alaskans beginning last September appears to be in sight.

“We anticipate we’ll be out of that backlog within two months, but we’ve seen a cascade of backlogs in all of our programs,” she told the Senate Finance Committee, which approved the bill for the supplemental budget about an hour before the Senate floor session where it was approved unanimously. The House approved the bill by a 38-1 vote last Wednesday.

Etheridge said the total current backlog involves more than 2,000 cases and, while the food stamp applications should be caught up in less than two months, it will take that long to catch up on all the division’s programs.

The backlog has been attributed to multiple factors, including obsolete equipment that’s decades old. Some officials have also put part of the blame on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration cutting more than 100 public assistance division jobs in 2021, despite warnings about adequate staffing.

The supplemental budget also contains funds to deal with shortages deemed crucial in the Public Defender Agency — which last month said it would have to stop accepting new clients in the Nome and Bethel due to staff shortages — and the Office of Public Advocacy, which provides legal help to vulnerable residents.

Dunleavy submitted a supplemental budget request earlier this year with far more items, but those were stripped out for the fast-tracked bill now being sent to his desk.

“Today, in front of us we have the smallest supplemental budget that we could get to working with the administration trying to minimize the financial impacts,” Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said during Monday’s floor session.

The supplemental bill does contain a provision allowing up to $115 million to be spent from the $2.3 billion Constitutional Budget Reserve to fund other spending items approved by lawmakers for the fiscal year ending June 30. A three-fourths vote of the Legislature is needed to access the fund, with both chambers approving that provision by near-unanimous tallies.

State Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, said during the committee meeting before the floor vote he hopes state public assistance officials will be forthcoming if the funds they have aren’t enough to resolve the backlog as quickly as predicted.

“I think the request to catch up on food stamps and Medicaid is tight,” he said. “If they find this isn’t sufficient resources to get needy people the help they need they will come back.”

• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

More in News

(Juneau Empire file photo)
Aurora forecast for the week of April 15

These forecasts are courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute… Continue reading

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Wednesday, April 17, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Newly elected tribal leaders are sworn in during the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska’s 89th annual Tribal Assembly on Thursday at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall. (Photo courtesy of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska)
New council leaders, citizen of year, emerging leader elected at 89th Tribal Assembly

Tlingit and Haida President Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson elected unopposed to sixth two-year term.

A waterfront view of Marine Parking Garage with the windows of the Juneau Public Library visible on the top floor. “Welcome” signs in several languages greet ships on the dock pilings below. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)
The story of the Marine Parking Garage: Saved by the library

After surviving lawsuit by Gold Rush-era persona, building is a modern landmark of art and function.

A troller plies the waters of Sitka Sound in 2023. (Photo by Max Graham)
Alaska Senate proposes $7.5 million aid package for struggling fish processors

The Alaska Senate has proposed a new aid package for the state’s… Continue reading

Current facilities operated by the private nonprofit Gastineau Human Services Corp. include a halfway house for just-released prisoners, a residential substance abuse treatment program and a 20-bed transitional living facility. (Gastineau Human Services Corp. photo)
Proposed 51-unit low-income, long-term housing project for people in recovery gets big boost from Assembly

Members vote 6-2 to declare intent to provide $2M in budget to help secure $9.5M more for project.

Members of the Alaska House of Representatives watch as votes are tallied on House Bill 50, the carbon storage legislation, on Wednesday. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska House, seeking to boost oil and gas business, approves carbon storage bill

Story votes yes, Hannan votes no as governor-backed HB 50 sent to the state Senate for further work.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Tuesday, April 16, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Most Read