Lawmakers nix funding for public corruption investigators

Members of the House subcommittee that sets the budget for the Alaska Department of Law have turned down $318,700 to hire investigators and attorneys to prosecute political corruption and investigate police-involved shootings.

The funding refusal comes two weeks after Barrow’s fire chief was killed by a North Slope Borough police officer.

Vincent Nageak III was the nephew of Rep. Ben Nageak, D-Barrow. The Alaska Bureau of Investigation is investigating the incident.

The subcommittee’s decision was one of many being made this week as subcommittees finish their work on departmental budgets. The full House Finance Committee will begin considering the state budget next week, and a vote of the full House is expected by March 9.

Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River and chairman of the subcommittee, said it wasn’t a case of not wanting to fund the unit, it was simply that few new expenses are being considered. “That’s just not the mode we’re in,” he said.

At the end of January, Attorney General Craig Richards and Gov. Bill Walker held a press conference to announce their plans for a “public integrity unit” within the department’s Office of Special Prosecutions. That unit is the same one that will receive the ABI’s report in the Nageak shooting.

Walker mentioned his intention to create the unit in his State of the State address, and Richards said in a “post-Ferguson world,” the public wants to know that officer-involved shootings and prison deaths are properly investigated.

Saddler said he specifically asked the department if they would be unable to prosecute such cases without the new unit. “When I asked what new kinds of cases that might be prosecuted, they said nothing new, just faster,” Saddler said.

Cori Mills, a spokeswoman for the department, said by email, “All of the areas that the unit would address are important. We will have to wait and see what is ultimately approved in the budget process, and then we will have to balance our resources and prioritize based on the cases that come into the department and the evidence that can be gathered.”

She said the department will wait until the end of the budget process to determine what it can do.

Despite the refusal to fund the public integrity unit, the Department of Law will see its budget grow by $15.2 million next fiscal year — if the subcommittee’s recommendations are accepted — because the state is expected to spend up to $17.5 million on hired legal help for the Alaska Liquefied Natural Gas pipeline project.

Six positions are being cut within the department, including civil and criminal prosecutors, and the subcommittee rejected Gov. Bill Walker’s request for funding to keep the Dillingham prosecutor’s office open.

Speaking in the subcommittee Tuesday night, Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, referred to statistics showing that the number of felony prosecutions has dropped as budgets and prosecutors have been cut.

“At some point, you’re not cutting waste, you’re cutting things that matter,” he said. “We’re leaving more felons on the street … at that point, I think the cuts have gone too far.”

Saddler said he agrees with Gara, “but our fiscal restraints these days make it not possible.”

The state is facing an annual deficit of between $3.5 billion and $4 billion, and in repeated sessions of public testimony, Alaskans have told lawmakers they want to see budget cuts before additional taxes.

Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak and a member of the finance subcommittee, said she understands the trouble that the closure of the prosecutor’s office will cause Dillingham, a fishing community like her hometown.

“I would love to have a prosecuting office in every rural community in the state … but the simple fact is, we just don’t have the dough,” she said.

Other departments also saw their budgets leave finance subcommittees on Tuesday.

In the Department of Administration, Gov. Walker had requested a cut of $4.5 million. Lawmakers took that, then cut another almost $10 million, reducing the department’s budget to $323.6 million, down from $338 million in the current fiscal year.

Among the cuts is nearly $2.7 million in funding for the state’s public radio and television stations, including Juneau’s KTOO. The state’s Public Defender Agency is losing $1.27 million, and the Alaska Public Offices Commission — which monitors campaign contributions — is losing $200,000.

The Department of Education and Early Development’s $379.6 million budget includes an increase of $17.8 million, mostly because of more federal funding and fee-funded programs.

The section of the department’s budget that comes from discretionary state funding has been cut by more than $10 million. Gone is more than $900,000 for broadband Internet access at remote libraries, $1 million for Alaska Native science and engineering education, $1 million for mentoring, and various amounts of funding for child nutrition, early learning, the Alaska State Council on the Arts, libraries, museums, and archives.

On Wednesday evening, other finance subcommittees were expected to finalize the budgets of the departments of Commerce, Revenue, Labor and the University of Alaska. On Thursday, it will be Transportation and Military/Veterans Affairs. On Friday, Corrections, Health and Public Safety will have their turns.

The department budgets will head to the full House Finance Committee for approval, then to a vote of the full House. Assuming House passage, the budgets head to the Senate, where the process of subcommittee, committee and floor vote will repeat.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at 523-2258 or james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com.

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