As dozens of Juneau and Douglas residents spoke to the House Finance Committee on Friday night, there was fear in many of their voices — but there was hope in others.
The meeting was the first in a series of community meetings the committee is holding around the state to gather Alaskans’ thoughts on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget. While many of the 68 people who testified said they were scared or used words like “immoral” and “sickening” to describe the budget, many of them said they were heartened by the number of people who showed out to share their thoughts.
A few main themes stood out during the comments. Principally, many who spoke said they would either take a smaller Permanent Fund Dividend or would pay a state income tax to help the state raise revenues so it wouldn’t have to slash spending as much as the governor has proposed.
Douglas resident Laura Steele summed up many of the comments as she spoke about the impact that a $3,000 PFD could have on the state.
“Don’t get me wrong, I would love the idea of having an extra $3,000,” Steele said. “I’d love it. It would be great for me. But I love my neighbors, their children, our elders and our state so much more than I love that idea.”
While many people said they’d gladly give up getting a PFD, some of them acknowledged that there are many people throughout the state who depend on the annual payments to support their families. Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, said in an interview after the meeting that she was impressed with the way people showed up and expressed a willingness to help out.
“I think Alaskans are ready to contribute to the revenue stream and are asking for an income tax,” Hannan said. “Of course, there are people who mentioned and talked about the significant impact of cutting the PFD harms the people who have less financial stability and means, so I think we’ve got to see a combination of an income tax and a reduction in the PFD.”
Hannan, who has stated many times that she’s in favor of an income tax, said the series of meetings — where committee members listen to people from around the state sharing their thoughts on the state’s budget — are important for legislators and constituents alike to learn more about how the budget affects Alaskans.
Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, chairs the committee and presented beforehand about Alaska’s fiscal history and the current situation the state is in. He spoke primarily about how paying out a $3,000 PFD without raising revenues would affect the state budget. Many of the people who testified asserted that they don’t think this is an either/or situation. If the state finds another revenue stream, they said, there could be a way where people get a hefty PFD without the state having to make drastic cuts to services such as the Alaska Marine Highway System or the University of Alaska.
People who testified came from all corners of the community. Elected officials on the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly and the Juneau Board of Education talked about how the state might save money but municipalities would have to pay more under Dunleavy’s budget. Bartlett Regional Hospital CEO Chuck Bill said the cost to providers would be “outrageous” if the state cut more than $400 million in Medicaid funding as proposed. Multiple students in the Juneau School District said they don’t want their teachers to have to have huge class sizes as a result of budget cuts. Juneau Police Chief Ed Mercer urged the committee to fund more prosecutors to help combat rising crime rates in the state.
Many retirees, young professionals, business owners, parents and others agreed that they want to stay in Alaska and it would be harder to do so if so many state services were cut.
Jon Lyman — who moved to Alaska 50 years ago this year and has lived all over the state — said the aspect of Alaska he loves the most is the way everyone comes together and helps each other, and he urged the legislators to get together and figure out how to go forward.
“It is the people that come and help you. It is the people you rely upon time and again,” Lyman said. “What this proposal does, is it tears us apart by saying, ‘I’ve got to have my $3,000’ instead of, ‘I have to participate in this state.’”
Seven more House Finance Committee community meetings are scheduled, in Ketchikan, Mat-Su, Bethel, Kenai, Anchorage, Sitka and Fairbanks.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.