Juneau testifiers leave legislators with something to chew on

For two hours Monday evening, Juneau residents offered their thoughts on the state operating budget proposed by the Senate Finance Committee.

Some were so eager, they chewed the microphones waiting on the table.

“This is Freya. She’s about a year and a half old,” explained her mother, Michele Weaver. “What’s your name? Can you tell them your name?”

“It’s all right; I can’t get these guys to stop chewing on the mics either,” said Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, of his fellow committee members.

Freya was reluctant to offer her testimony, but plenty of other Juneauites weren’t as they gave their support for subjects from public broadcasting to early childhood education programs.

Weaver wasn’t the only mother to bring her child to testify in support of state funding for early childhood education programs. Many also wore stickers promoting the “Parents as Teachers” program, which sends a free aide into a home for one hour a month.

Cynthia Katzeek, who has three children, said she has noticed the difference between the development of her daughter — who participated in the program — and her other children, who did not.

“It’s cool to see her developing faster than my other children did,” Katzeek said.

Melinda Messmer, a home visitor under the Parents as Teachers program, said the effort focuses on the period from birth to 3 years old, which is critical for childhood development.

“It’s really critical; they learn so much in the first three years of life,” she said.

The parade of babies to the microphone brought some good-natured ribbing from Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna and a member of the committee.

“We’re at a severe disadvantage; every one of these kids look like Gerber babies, and talking about budget cuts, it’s pretty tough,” he said.

In addition to the parade of babies, there was a procession of public radio supporters who spoke out against the Senate committee’s plan to erase state support for public broadcasting.

Kirk Duncan, chairman of CoastAlaska, the network of Southeast Alaska public radio stations, suggested the Senate look instead at making cuts over time instead of all at once.

“A transitional approach over several years makes sense,” he said, adding that he believes in a personal income tax for Alaskans.

Ric Iannolino, a board member of the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health Inc., said the Senate committee should reconsider its plan to cut the budget for behavioral health programs.

“We can cut funds, but we can’t cut the number of people who have mental health disorders,” he said.

Bob Bartholomew, finance director of the City and Borough of Juneau, brought forward the sustainable budget resolution approved by the CBJ Assembly and asked the finance committee to reconsider a plan to require increased support from local governments for the state-managed public employee and teachers retirement systems.

Those systems were changed in 2014, and he said the impact of those changes hasn’t been fully felt at the local level. The Senate would be piling a new change atop an already uncertain one, he said.

Jayne Andreen urged the Senate Finance Committee to reverse course on a $3 million cut to public health nursing programs. Andreen, of the Alaska Public Health Association, said the cut would cost 30-35 jobs and close public health centers across the state.

“In order to ensure people are healthy … we need to be able to support healthy communities,” she said.

Public testimony will continue throughout this week in the Senate, which is considering a budget plan that includes steeper cuts than the one simultaneously advancing to a vote in the House.

Once each body passes its own version of the state operating budget, the two versions will go to a conference committee to be reconciled.

The budget discussion is only half the state’s fiscal picture, however; lawmakers must still decide how to pay for it. While the state has enough money in its Constitutional Budget Reserve savings account to fund the budget this year, lawmakers have said they want to consider taxes and spending earnings from the Alaska Permanent Fund to reduce the state’s $3.7 billion annual deficit and preserve the savings account for future years.

A final budget likely will not be passed by the Legislature until the end of the session, when those taxes and Permanent Fund plans have been confirmed.

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