Will commissioners meet with legislators on Dunleavy’s budget? They’ll need to get permission first

OMB Director Donna Arduin answers questions about Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy's budget during a news conference on its release on Feb. 13, 2019. (Photo by the Governor's Office/Flickr)

Since Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s budget was released two weeks ago, the Legislature has spent most of the time spinning its wheels getting hollow, unsatisfying answers about the decision-making behind the budget and its potential impacts on Alaska.

How will seizing more than $440 million in local oil and gas property taxes affect local communities? It’s not the state’s place to say. How will communities cope with the wholesale elimination of the Alaska Marine Highway System? It’s not the state’s problem. How will education improve with drastic cuts to K-12 funding and the university? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

A lot of that is thanks to the answers coming not from the heads of the affected departments, but the administrative services directors that were swept up under the wing of Office of Management and Budget Director Donna Arduin by Dunleavy’s Administrative Order 302. Those are the folks who are responsible for implementing the budgets and they used to worked directly for their commissioners.

It’s created a disconnect that Legislative Finance Division Director David Teal described on Monday as a situation where “the common answer to why are you cutting this particular item have been, ‘We have a deficit’ or ‘it’s just a proposal.’”

The Senate Finance Committee got a chance today to talk about the Department of Administration with Commissioner-designee Kelly Tshibaka, who got the job after the previous appointee withdrew after he was caught lying to the committee, during her confirmation hearing.

But that might be all they get.

Though the hearing was a general interview of Tshibaka—whose lengthy resume with the federal government caused Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, to comment that she was perhaps overqualified for the position—the committee also had an opportunity to ask how the department would cope with cuts to public broadcasting and the public defender’s office.

The answers were filled with “nice and flowery words,” as Sen. Donny Olson summed them up, but they still shined more light on just how the department might implement the cuts (as in looking elsewhere for grants for rural radio stations and reworking the public defender’s office) than legislators were getting from Arduin and the OMB.

And as the Legislature moves the budget into the Finance subcommittee process, where each department is broken out into individual committees to review in finer detail and produce their own recommendations for changes, Senate Finance Committee Co-Chair Sen. Bert Stedman asked Tshibaka if she planned on continuing the conversation.

“The committee members are looking forward to the commissioners coming forward in the subcommittee process and working with them, along with OMB. Obviously, there’s the numerical side from OMB, but there’s the implementation side that has to be done by the commissioners,” he said. “Do you intend to come before the subcommittees and help us with the budgetary process or relinquish that duty and turn it all over to OMB?”

“I’ll have to confer with OMB on what their plan is,” Tshibaka replied.

The answer didn’t seem to be particularly surprising to Stedman given the general understanding that commissioners weren’t part of the formulation of the budget and are being limited on what they can say. The Office of Management and Budget, under Arduin’s leadership, has centralized much of the executive branch’s power, and the proposed budget contains what one legislator calls an “unprecedented power grab” that would allow the OMB to move around funds after the budget is passed by the Legislature.

Still, Stedman continued to make the case publicly for the commissioners to be part of the conversation.

“We’ll be enthusiastically waiting for your arrival at the subcommittee along with all the other commissioners. It’s very difficult to do the subcommittee work with just OMB because they’re concentrating more on the numerics. We still have to implement the budget, and the implementation some of the committee members are very concerned about depending on the amount and the magnitude of the reductions that are basically being forced upon us to meet our cash obligations,” he said. “I would encourage you to come forward and work with the committee in the subcommittee process on the budget. It would help make a better decision process and a far superior conclusion, I think, by the committee with input by all of the commissioners.”

Sen. Peter Micciche, the Soldotna Republican who chairs the subcommittee on the Department of Administration, seconded Stedman’s request.

“I’m just going to ask you to become intimately knowledgeable with the budget as it was presented by OMB,” he said. “As the chair for that department, I’m going to be asking you those questions. I’ve been dissatisfied with the lack of depth from OMB. I understand the separation of the two departments and who has responsibility of the finances. But as Sen. Stedman said, you’re going to be the one executing that mission every day I’m going to be asking you those questions.”

Sen. Click Bishop, the Fairbanks Republican who previously served as Commissioner of Labor, had his own thoughts about the situation:

“I’ve sat where you’ve sat and delivered six budgets to this Legislature with him as chair and him as chair,” he said, motioning to Stedman and Hoffman. “I’ve never missed a committee meeting with the full committee or a subcommittee.”

Stay tuned. In the meantime, Arduin hasn’t directly been in front of the committee since last Thursday.

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