As the Alaska House of Representatives approved its operating budget on Thursday, members of the Senate were listening to Alaskans from around the state share their thoughts on what they wanted the Senate to do with the budget.
For an hour and a half, the Senate Finance Committee listened specifically to Juneau residents. Testifiers included everyone from University of Alaska Southeast students to retirees to Mayor Beth Weldon. Education-related topics stood out, as attendees implored the senators to preserve funding for K-12 education, early education and the university system. Multiple people also testified about preserving Medicaid funding.
City and Borough of Juneau officials have been outspoken during the state’s budget process, particularly critical of proposed school-related cuts that would shift costs to the municipality. Last week, the House Finance Committee voted to eliminate a school bond debt reimbursement program, and the CBJ issued a statement saying that would cost the city $16 million over the next few years. On the House floor, representatives voted to restore some of the funding for the program, but Weldon urged the Senate to keep the funding for that program intact as much as possible.
“Education is an investment in our future, not a discretionary cost,” Weldon said.
The House’s budget, which includes about $200 million in cuts from last year’s budget, rejected many of the deep cuts in Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget proposal. The House’s budget goes to the Senate for approval next. If changes are made in the Senate, a joint House-Senate conference committee will convene to sort out the differences before the budget bill goes to Dunleavy. The governor then has 30 days to sign the bill or to make vetoes.
Juneau’s senator, Jesse Kiehl, is not on the Senate Finance Committee but was in attendance Thursday to listen to his constituents. Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, also made it for part of the hearing after the House finished its floor session. Kiehl said he appreciated the feedback that people gave during the meeting.
“I heard a remarkable number of people acknowledge that the budget’s going to get smaller and ask that the reductions are going to be something that we can sustain and don’t shun our kids and crash the economy,” Kiehl said in a brief interview afterward. “I’ve been working with my colleagues on a lot of ideas about that, and it’s good to hear folks reinforce that message.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.