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By Dan Rudy 

Legislators look at budget cuts, Medicaid expansion


Wrangell residents and other Alaskans from around the state were given more opportunity to voice concerns over impending cuts to state programming during a public hearing held Monday evening for the draft of next year's budget being considered by the Senate Finance Committee.

Six Wrangellites came to their local Legislative Information Office to provide testimony via telephone, along with residents of Petersburg and Ketchikan.

“I am speaking in opposition to the cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System,” borough manager Jeff Jabusch told the committee in a prepared statement.

The Senate's draft budget would cut $12.3 million from the ferry system's budget, which if implemented would cut 33 positions and significantly reduce service.

Citing the effects such cuts would have on Wrangell's tourism, medical accessibility, commerce and overall mobility, Jabusch asked the committee to consider restoring funds to the transportation budget.

“Over the last 20 years Wrangell has been beaten up as a result of the timber industry and has worked hard to rebuild with fisheries and harbor expansions, tourism and a marine service center,” he summarized. “Taking the ferries away this summer and into the future would again send us backward as it takes away our highway system.”

Also speaking up for ferry funding were Barbara and Richard Larson. “The ferries bring a lot of people up here, plus there's an incentive to see more of Alaska,” she testified.

Speaking on behalf of radio station KSTK, Aleisha Mollen told senators their proposed cuts of 100 percent to public broadcasting would be fatal to the program. Not only does it provide news and entertainment, but she explained the station gives locals the chance to become volunteer disc jockeys.

The experience is especially useful for younger students, she said: “It really provides a great opportunity for them to build confidence in public speaking.”

Wrangell Public Schools superintendent Patrick Mayer and Petersburg High School principal Rick Dormer each spoke up for education funding as well as the ferry service. Mayer felt the cuts to one-time funding put public schools around the state in great difficulty.

Testimony was not only focused on spending, but on raising revenues. Petersburg superintendent Erica Kludt-Painter of Petersburg felt it was time for legislators to revisit the idea of instituting an income tax and doing away with the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend payments.

The state dividend is derived from oil royalties and set aside in a fund worth $50 billion last year. Some $1.2 billion of statutory income earned from the fund was dispersed to state residents in 2014, at $1,884 per person.

The budget process continues. Once the Finance Committee completes its work on the budget, its Committee Substitute will likely be sent back to the Senate floor to be approved or further amended before being reconciled with the House version. Eventually a compromisory budget worked out by conference committee will find its way to the governor for his decision before the start of the new fiscal year.

Also on the legislative radar is House Bill 148, proposed by Gov. Bill Walker to expand and reform Medicaid as part of the federal Affordable Care Act. The bill is currently being considered by the House Health and Social Services Committee, with the third of three public hearings held Tuesday evening.

A variety of people gave reasons why the state should or should not participate in the expansion of Medicaid, which is presently the main federal entitlement program for financing basic health and long-term care services for low-income Alaskans.

The law provides that the federal government will pay 100 percent of costs expended on newly-eligible adult beneficiaries through 2016, with that contribution gradually declining beginning the next year down to a minimum of 90 percent.

The state Department of Health and Social Services (HSSC) estimates that around 70,000 Alaskans currently receive medical benefits through the Medicaid program. Speaking Tuesday, HSSC chair Rep. Paul Seaton (R- Homer) estimated the expansion would see between 20,000 and 40,000 new enrollees.

Healthcare professionals, church groups, civil servants and assorted residents gave their two cents on the matter. Public testimony was limited to three minutes for each speaker, who were either present in Juneau or participating via telecom at LIO offices around the state.

Calling in from Kake, Alaska Native Health Board (ANHB) chair Verne Boerner said he supported the bill.

“Chronic underfunding afflicts our Native facilities,” he explained. ANHB serves 135,000 Native Alaskans, and Boerner said the expansion would be critical to improving the healthcare service it can offer.

Self-described Libertarian and Bethel Mayor Richard Robb said that while Obamacare is a political “hot potato” on the one hand, the financial and health benefits offered by HB148 would be a benefit for Alaskans and should not be passed up for the sake of political partisanship.

“I am encouraging the legislature to do what is right and support Medicaid expansion,” he testified.

By Tuesday night the House committee was going through a number of amendments to the bill and still taking testimony. A similar, if less expansive, bill is being taken up by the Senate, and the two may need to be reconciled.


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