We’re nearly a third of the way through the session. The education budget battle is continuing, the House is starting to take a hardline budget stance of its own and the House Finance Committee room has been named after the late Al Adams.
Just 61 days to go.
House Finance room dedicated
In a heart-warming ceremony, the House Finance Committee chambers have been dedicated to the late legislator Al Adams. Friends, family and former colleagues gathered for the event to remember the House Finance Committee’s last sole chairman, serving from 1981 to 1988 in the position before moving over to the Senate. He also helped create the power cost equalization program. There were plenty of stories that were saved for the reception afterward.
University of Alaska
The University of Alaska is doing just about as best as it can and is still somehow optimistic given the tough budget cuts handed down by the Legislature. University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen spoke with the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, giving an overview of the system’s efforts to grapple with the cuts and reshape the system to better serve Alaska. One of his biggest initiatives is to boost the number of teachers produced by the University of Alaska that can go on to teach in Alaska. He said it would not only would it improve readiness to meet the needs of teaching in rural Alaska, but also save the K-12 education system quite a bit of money. School districts, he said, spend about $20 million every year recruiting new teachers.
Senators were in a listening mood during the hearing, and Johnsen didn’t get much of the tough questioning that executive branches have faced in the committee. The university is currently slated for a $150,000 cut in the Fiscal Year 19 budget, which would be by far the smallest reduction in recent years.
The committee was interested in the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ new coal-fired power plant (that Senate President Pete Kelly helped fund almost single-handedly) and the simultaneous effort to bring natural gas to the Interior. Johnsen told the committee that coal is still by far the cheapest energy source for a large power and heat plant like the one at UAF.
Health inspections of restaurants are down
Legislators have been hearing from the Department of Environmental Conservation in finance subcommittees and one of the alarming takeaways is that health inspector visits to restaurants and other facilities are way down thanks to budget cuts. According to the presentations, the inspectors visited a third of all permanent retail food facilities in Alaska. The federal benchmark, according to the presentation, is 100 percent of retail facilities twice a year.
A withdrawal explained
Last week, Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux became the prime sponsor of former Rep. Dean Westlake’s House Bill 145, which repealed background checks for massage therapists, only to withdraw it afterward. A compromise measure was adopted into the House Bill 275, which renews the board of massage therapists, in the House Finance Committee that would require massage therapists to be fingerprinted once every three renewals.
Senate Bill 26 not a must
The House Majority Coalition was asked about the legislation to officially restructure the Alaska Permanent Fund and its earnings account to help pay for government, Senate Bill 26, during its weekly press conference. The answer is that it’s not a must-have, and Rep. Paul Seaton argued that structured draws from the permanent fund earnings reserve is possible without the bill as long as legislators stay below the draws. The House Majority also renewed its opposition to a permanent fund-only deficit plan, in response to the Senate Majority’s hardline no-tax permanent fund-only plan. The House Majority is positioning itself to refuse a plan that just relies on cutting the PFD for new revenue.
Education budget fight continues
The Senate Majority and their Republican allies are up in arms that the education budget passed by the House doesn’t actually include funding (something that almost every news story recognized) because minority Republicans didn’t sign off on the constitutional budget reserve draw. On Monday, the Senate seemed to suggest that fixing the error could be beyond the Senate’s powers. Rep. Paul Seaton thinks that’s “silly.”
“I thought it was kind of silly to project that the Senate Finance committee would not be able to figure out how to add a funding source. They could take the exact language that the House Majority had in the bill and take that out of the CBR,” he said, adding that the Senate could put some other source of funding in the bill and the House would consider that, too.
What we’re reading
- There’s a big fight brewing over Medicaid that was kicked off by a huge supplemental budget request that took legislators by surprise even though they were told they were underfunding the program multiple times throughout the last year. Now, Republicans are threatening to not fund the supplemental request while also kicking around changes to Medicaid that would make Paul Ryan do a thumbs up. Read: Medicaid turns into budget battleground via Juneau Empire.
- The Senate is pushing for a no-tax, only PFD plan for fixing the budget. Does the math actually pencil out? Read: Can the Permanent Fund save Alaska’s budget, without taxes? The Senate says so – but it depends. via Anchorage Daily News.