Prisons, Troopers go under budget knife

The Alaska House closed out the first stage of its budget work on Friday as the subcommittee in charge of the Alaska State Troopers recommended a 2.4 percent budget cut.

The House Finance Subcommittee for the Department of Public Safety is recommending a $187.9 million budget that is $4.6 million less than the budget for the current fiscal year. Gov. Bill Walker recommended $3.2 million in cuts, and the subcommittee added another $1.4 million in cuts.

The budgets for public safety and the state’s prisons were among the last to be passed out of subcommittee last week.

Included in Walker’s suggested reductions are $500,000 from the Village Public Safety Officer program and significant cuts to state trooper staffing. Without changes by the Legislature, there will be five fewer full-time state troopers, three fewer trooper background investigators, two fewer investigators in the Alaska Bureau of Investigation, one fewer Alaska Wildlife Trooper and one fewer wildlife trooper captain. The wildlife troopers’ fishery enforcement division will see job losses, as will the state’s crime lab.

“It’s just a tough year with a lot of options that we haven’t liked,” said Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, and a member of the subcommittee, shortly before the recommendations were finalized.

With the state facing an annual deficit of between $3.5 billion and $4 billion, legislators are heeding the call of Alaskans to make cuts before seeking new taxes and spending Permanent Fund earnings to fill the rest of the gap.

The subcommittee budget “closeouts” that concluded Friday are recommendations for each department. In the first week of March, the full House Finance Committee will begin considering those recommendations, and the entire House is expected to vote on the budget in the second week of March.

If approved, the budget will head to the Senate, where the process of subcommittee, committee and floor vote will repeat while the House digs into tax and revenue proposals.

In the Department of Corrections, lawmakers are recommending a budget of $318.6 million, down almost $6 million from the current fiscal year. Walker had recommended nearly $5 million in cuts, and the House subcommittee in charge of the corrections budget is recommending another $900,000.

One of the biggest changes is a $6 million reduction in inmate health care expenses, a change wrought by the expansion of Medicaid, which makes the federal government responsible for those costs. Some of those savings were erased by increases in other departments.

The subcommittee also erased funding that would have funded planning efforts for future prison expansion. Senate Bill 91, currently in the Senate State Affairs Committee, is a comprehensive prison sentencing reform bill expected to reduce Alaska’s prison population and save money. The subcommittee’s recommended budget for corrections could be reduced further if the reform bill is approved.

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

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