House ups prison funding, rejects increases to Pre-K or public broadcasting. AKLEG Day 36 Recap

The House Finance Committee considers budget amendments on Feb. 25, 2020. (Screenshot from Gavel Alaska)

Programming note: Thanks for bearing with me and the lack of content over the last few days. I had some personal travel come up that made it hard to track the Legislature or pretty much anything else. To everyone who reached out with well wishes or legislative updates, thank you.

Anyways! Day 36 served as a good reminder that it’s an election year and that there’s limits to the bipartisan cooperation that characterized the Legislature’s first year under Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Here’s some of what happened:

House Finance begins budget amendments

After a ton of public testimony capping off weeks of budget hearings, the House Finance Committee is starting to wrap up work on the operating budget. It approved and advanced the supplemental budget (which was hardly changed from Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposal) at the start of the Tuesday hearing before getting underway with amendments to the operating budget.

The three main issues that came up were funding for public broadcasting, pre-K and prisons. The House funded only one of the three. Can you guess which one?

Yep, prisons.

The committee approved $400,000 to stand up a three-person centralized recruitment team within the Department of Corrections to help with recruitment to fill both the chronic understaffing of the system as well as hire new positions to reopen the Palmer Correctional Center. As many as 200 positions will need to be hired by the end of it all.

The amendment was brought by Rep. Adam Wool, the Fairbanks Democrat who oversaw the prison budget. He said he felt the Department of Corrections has intentionally slowed hiring.

“I just don’t want the department to drag their feet and I feel like they’ve been doing that, to be honest with you,” he said

The committee also approved $4.3 million to cover the health costs associated with the prison population increases stemming to the tougher sentencing contained in last year’s House Bill 49. In a combination of amendments, the committee approved $7.4 million in additional funding for population management and deleted $16.7 million from population management. It doesn’t actually result in a net decrease in funding, though, as the Department of Corrections has $16.7 million still sitting around in the current year’s budget that was tied to the reopening of the Palmer Correctional Center.

The overall impact on prison funding is an increase of $12.1 million.

The amendments were either supported without objection or along caucus lines.

It wasn’t the same for Pre-K grants and public broadcasting.

Efforts to restore $700,000 to public broadcasting and $4.3 million to continue funding for Pre-K grants were both defeated, with one of the votes breaking down along party lines, serving as a reminder that Republicans still hold the majority of the seats on the committee and will, despite their membership in a bipartisan coalition, vote like Republicans from time to time.

“I’m going to vote against a lot of things I truly support. Individually they’re not much but collectively they add up to a fair amount in this budget amendment process,” said Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kodiak Kenai. “Even though I’m voting no on many of them, I definitely support them. There’s nothing worse than us supporting a budget that we can’t continue to support in future years and I’m afraid that’s what will happen after this year.”

Knopp more often than not voted with minority Republicans on Tuesday and was frequently joined by House Finance Committee Rep. Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage, in opposing efforts to add money back into the budget. Fairbanks Republican Rep. Bart LeBon, who’s the third majority coalition Republican on the committee, was more split.

LeBon was the lone Republican on the committee to support the public broadcasting vote, which failed on a 6N-5Y vote. The current budget has $1 million slated for public radio and no money for public television, including Gavel Alaska.

The committee’s seven Republicans stuck together though when it came to funding $4.3 million in pre-K grants. The amendment was brought forward by Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, in order to maintain funding for the program as federal money runs out. The state budget currently has about $2 million in state funding for the program with potentially more coming if an education reform bill passes the Legislature.

Ortiz appealed to his colleagues, arguing that investing in pre-K is proven to improve the lifelong outcomes of people and reduce their chances at showing up in prison later in life. He said those kinds of long-term goals should be driving the budget.

“While we do have to adopt a budget that’s fiscally responsible, the priority should be, I believe, in promoting a society that’s well-educated, a youth that’s well-educated, that should be our number one priority,” he said. “If we don’t adopt this amendment, there will be 821 students who don’t have access to a pre-K program. They won’t have access to it. We look at it as a one-year budget cycle but let me assure you that for that little four-year-old it’s not about that to them.”

In response to some Republicans’ statements that all the legislators got there just fine without pre-K, Ortiz said that’s great but not all children have those kinds of opportunities. He said Alaska has the fewest pre-K opportunities of any state.

“We have the least opportunity for pre-K and what does that say? What does that say about us and where our priorities are? We just got done debating and approving $7.4 million for increased population support in our prisoner system and then we adopted $4.3 million for health care costs for our prison population,” he said. “Do I think we should have done that? Yeah, but what does that say? …  Folks, if we’re not investing in our youth and we’re not investing in opportunities for our youth, let me tell you that it’s going to catch up in the long run. That’s just a fact.”

The amendment for pre-K grants was defeated along party lines.

Fair Share Act hearing

If you needed another reminder that Republicans are, after all, Republicans then Tuesday’s hearing on the Fair Share Act was the place to be. Allegiances based on preserving state savings and lessening cuts to state services (while also reducing the PFD) don’t mean much when it comes to oil taxes.

Read more about it here:

Anti-abortion bills

Monday was the final day for personal legislation to be introduced, which marked a flurry of several anti-abortion bills (it’s an election year, after all). Rep. Sarah Vance’s House Bill 302 would outlaw abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected. It already has 17 co-sponsors from both the minority and majority.

With most of those bills set to go through the House Health and Social Services Committee, it’s unlikely that they’ll have much of a shot at passing but, again it’s an election year and Republicans have been feeling the pressure from the far-right on abortion, so who knows.

Meanwhile, the Senate will today be hearing a proposed constitutional amendment that would erase the protection for abortions from the Alaska Constitution’s privacy clause. It’s up for invited and public testimony in the Senate Health and Social Services Committee today.

The Juneau Empire’s Peter Segall has a thorough rundown of the legislation: House Republicans introduce wave of anti-abortion bills before filing deadlines

UAA outlines programs for elimination

The University of Alaska Anchorage outlined more detail on just how the cuts driven by Gov. Mike Dunleavy are playing out when it released the first wave of academic programs for deletion under the expedited program review launched last year.

The programs include: Anthropology master’s, clinical psychology master’s, creative writing master’s, early childhood special education, English master’s, environment and society bachelor’s, legal studies legal nurse consultant paralegal, sociology bachelor’s and theater bachelor’s.

Alaska Public Media’s Tegan Hanlon has a good rundown of the news: ‘None of us wants to do this’: UAA leaders recommend eliminating degree programs to shrink budget gap

UAA is just the first to make its recommendations public, but similar efforts are also occurring at UAF and UAS so stay tuned.

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