Sen. Jesse Kiehl doesn’t think much of the governor’s approach to the state budget.
“He’s making it up as he goes along,” Kiehl told the Empire Wednesday.
Following the governor’s announcement of the final state budget Monday, the Empire reached out to Juneau’s representatives in the Alaska Legislature, all Democrats, to find out what they thought of the Republican governor’s budget.
“We should always try to do it better than we did before,” Kiehl said, referring to compromises the Legislature made in order to reduce the state’s budget.
“But you can’t just make it up as you go along.”
Kiehl was particularly critical of the governor’s cuts to Medicaid. The governor vetoed $50 million dollars from the state’s Medicaid budget.
Kiehl said the Legislature worked with the Department of Health and Social Services, which administers the Medicaid program, to determine what kind of cuts could be made.
“We could responsibly and legally accomplish about a 5 percent saving in a year. The governor cut tens of millions more without a plan,” he said.
Rep. Andi Story was similarly critical of the cuts to public health programs. Story said she was surprised by the cuts to things like mental health services and addiction treatment given that a primary focus of Dunleavy’s administration was public safety.
“Public safety was one of the No. 1 areas we’ve been working on,” she said, adding that public health was “critical to safe communities.”
The governor vetoed over $6 million in Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery Grants, saying in a statement that spending on those programs had actually increased by roughly $58 million since 2015.
“There were some really big discrepancies in there because our overall goal was health and public safety,” she said.
Juneau’s other House Representative, Sara Hannan, mentioned the apparent discrepancies between the promotion of public safety on the one hand and the governor’s final budget on the other.
Hannan pointed to the roughly $335,000 vetoed by the governor to the state judiciary.
“Spending more on our criminal justice system relies on our courts’ ability to process (cases),” Hannan said. She also said that the reason cited by the administration for those cuts were deeply troubling.
In a document from the Office of Management and Budget detailing Dunleavy’s vetoes, the reduction to the judiciary is listed as “elimination of funding equal to (fiscal year 2018) state funded abortions.”
That document says that both the executive and legislative branches are opposed to state funded abortions.
“The only branch of government that insists on State funded elective abortions is the Supreme Court. The annual cost of elective abortions is reflected by this reduction,” the document says.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska filed suit against Dunleavy in July saying his cuts to the Supreme Court (the same cuts were made in the governor’s first round of vetoes) were in retaliation for a court decision at odds with his political beliefs.
All three lawmakers expressed disappointment at the reductions to the Alaska Marine Highway System. The Legislature voted for an extra $5 million to provide extra service to rural communities, but those funds were vetoed by the governor Monday.
“The marine highway system is the one and only compromise that was forged on the budget,” Kiehl said, referring to the bipartisan support that amendment had. “Everything else had to go through this disruptive and inefficient process of his vetoes. And now with some limited reinstatements but that compromise was based on absolutely brutal reductions that are going to hurt the economy and the outlying communities.”
Juneau’s lawmakers said they were pleased to see that the governor listened to the public and restored funding to critical programs like Head Start, Senior Benefits and the Arts Council, but for the most part felt Dunleavy was hurting the state.
“We’re still evaluating the effects of the budget,” Story said. “We’ve got a good direction here and it’s shoring up parts of our economy we feel are important. I’ll be working hard to get a budget that gets a good future here.”
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.