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By Dan Rudy 

Southeast finds ears in House over budget cuts

 


As legislators in Juneau prepare a budget for the state's next fiscal year, Alaska residents have been urged to contribute their say as cuts are considered.

Since the Legislative session began on Jan. 20, lawmakers have been weighted with the task of finding ways to address a more than $3.6 billion deficit. To that end, the State House was looking at making a nearly 10 percent, or about $240 million, cut from state spending over the previous fiscal year.

Among areas affected by the cuts would be capital improvements, education, transportation, corrections and about 300 state jobs.

To address concerns and find some direction from the public, the House Finance Committee held several days of hearings. To conserve time, people were asked to limit their testimony to two minutes.

Originally 18 Wrangellites gathered at the Legislative Information Office the afternoon of March 4, when they were allotted an hour and a half to teleconference with the Committee along with other rural constituencies.

As the hearing went over time and neared the three-hour mark, that number had dwindled to five by the time Wrangell was given the opportunity to speak.

Borough Manager Jeff Jabusch kept brief the community's largest concerns: funding for the jail and revenue sharing, the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS), public radio, and the LIO offices themselves.

A proposed $9.5 million cut to the ferry service budget drew worried responses from a number of communities during the hearing, with coastal Alaskans concerned schedules would be adversely affected.

During his testimony, long-time Wrangell resident Brian Merritt recommended legislators imagine closing down the Interstate servicing Fairbanks or Anchorage for several days a week each summer.

“That's how it feels here,” he said.

“I concur with what everybody was been saying about keeping our ferry service in place,” testified Ruth Stough, another Wrangell resident.

Speaking on Tuesday, Jabusch expressed the view that the public testimony had its intended effect, with some of the targeted funding cuts to AMHS returned in the current budget's incarnation. Where the numbers will finally come to rest is yet to be seen.

“It's just kind of a moving target with the state right now,” Jabusch explained. However, he said cuts to public radio and LIO funding—valuable means of communication for Alaska's isolated rural communities—seem to have been blunted as well.

Also providing testimony were teacher Michelle Gala and school superintendent Patrick Mayer, in support of Alaska Learning Network and against $32 million in proposed cuts to one-time education funding, respectively.

For the latter, the 2.5 percent funding reduction would mean the loss of one certificated position and several part-time aides for Wrangell's school system, when taking other lapses in federal funding into account.

Originally scheduled for March 4 but pushed back to March 6 to accommodate the hearing's extended run time, six Wrangell residents also were able to use LIO resources to speak with their new representative in Juneau, Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan.

“The big issue has been the budget and how to close that $3.5 billion deficit,” Ortiz said. “Because the budget deficit is the biggest issue, it's caused us to, up to this point, I think make some pretty drastic cuts.”

Meeting with Jabusch and Mayor David Jack before the session began, Ortiz recapped the legislative priorities they presented him.

Capital projects such as pool repairs, street repair funding, and some improvements at the boatyard remain on his periphery, as have proposed cuts to jail funding. Though Wrangell will get to keep its jail, state-provided funding for the facility is set to drop by nearly two-thirds, or more than $350,000.

“The Department of Corrections have adjusted their position, and I don't think they are looking any more at complete closures of any facilities,” said Ortiz. “Now I think they're doing some calculations about what the actual allotment will be.”

David Rak presented Ortiz with a letter drafted by Wrangell's Fish and Game Advisory Committee in support of reinstating a local Alaska Wilderness Trooper position that was announced cut.

“(We) would like you to reconsider this position,” Rak read. “It is important to have this presence in our town,” as a remotely-stationed trooper would not spend enough time in the area to be of help. In addition, the letter requests Wrangell be made a high priority for reinstatement once the state financial situation improves, that the Petersburg-based trooper be compelled to spend half his time in Wrangell, and that Wrangell would get a trooper reinstated before Petersburg would be given a second.

Ortiz said he will also contact the Alaska Wildlife Troopers (AWT) and see what can be done about restoring a Wrangell position cut after its previous trooper was transferred. AWT had to make 30 reductions overall, so the vacancy made for a convenient cut.

“I'm not sure it's the best way cuts should be made,” Ortiz said. “Troopers are needed when they're needed.”

Sitting on the House Transportation Committee, Ortiz explained the situation with cuts proposed to the ferry system.

“They're shooting for a near-$10 million reduction,” he said. While Gov. Bill Walker's amended budget would have restored $3.5 million, Ortiz explained that the subcommittee on transportation decided that the ferry system would take the additional cut instead.

“That's a big, big hit to the system, and certainly would cause a massive reduction of services for all of Southeast, and south-central and southwestern Alaska,” he said. “With this cut, that's what you'd be doing, you'd be closing down our road system here in Southeast Alaska.”

After the comments the Finance Committee received, while admitting no guarantees, Ortiz said he was convinced “a significant portion will be restored” for AMHS.

The discussion lasted about an hour, with those in attendance able to ask Ortiz about particular policies or provide advice on different positions.

Speaking to Ortiz, Bruce Eagle recommended holding future such discussions jointly with other constituent communities, allowing for more of an exchange of ideas between constituencies in the district.

Ortiz said he would aim to hold these sessions once every three weeks during the legislative session, while maintaining a personal presence in constituent communities during the off-season.He will also be creating a part-time staff position, to cover the Wrangell legislative office when Ortiz is elsewhere.

 

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