Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed state operating budget is advancing through the Alaska House with few changes so far from the governor’s original draft.
On Tuesday morning, members of the House Finance Committee heard the final reports from subcommittees assigned to analyze the budgets of various state agencies and make any changes they feel are needed.
With a predominantly Republican coalition in charge of the House this year, it’s the first time that most Republican members of the state House have been in charge of the budgetary process, and subcommittees made no changes to the budgets proposed for 13 of 19 state agencies.
“It’s generally a flat budget,” said Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer and House Finance Committee co-chair in charge of the operating budget.
That’s a notable change from the tumultuous arguments that dominated the governor’s first years in office.
This year, Dunleavy proposed a $4.6 billion state operating budget — $7 billion if the Permanent Fund dividend is included — and didn’t include the kinds of service cuts that drew public outcry in his first term.
“Largely what we’re seeing is a status quo budget,” said House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage.
Schrage said that has helped make the initial stages of the process smoother.
“I would say that there is a little bit of a different feel, largely because, again, we’re starting off with a status quo budget,” he said.
With no significant changes in the subcommittees, that means the policy proposals included in the budget — such as the state’s planned takeover of wetlands construction permitting from the federal government — are advancing.
The governor’s budget also would increase funding for public defenders and for the processing of food-stamp claims.
The subcommittee in charge of the Department of Education and Early Development made the most changes from the governor’s proposal.
Chaired by Rep. Julie Coulombe, R-Anchorage, the subcommittee cut a $900,000 department-level data project and $400,000 for two librarians at the state library in Juneau.
Colulombe said she likes libraries, but those positions have been vacant for years.
The subcommittee also redirected $385,000 to hire two additional reading specialists intended to help implement the Alaska Reads Act, which the Legislature passed last year.
“I’m trying to find efficiencies wherever I can,” Coulombe said.
Over Coulombe’s objections, the subcommittee also approved $320,000 in state support for the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which distributes free books to children in order to encourage young reading.
State lawmakers have not yet taken up the amount of this year’s Permanent Fund dividend; that will be addressed when the House Finance Committee begins debating the budget.
The first House-drafted version of the budget is expected next week, Johnson said, with committee amendments considered the following week.
An updated state revenue forecast is also expected before the end of the month.
If the budget requires lawmakers to spend from savings in order to balance the books, the support of the House’s coalition minority will be needed to reach the necessary vote threshold.
Schrage declined to state what the minority’s price would be for that budget-deciding vote but said the minority is committed to increasing school funding, something that could advance in separate legislation or be added to the budget later.
House Minority Whip Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, said the minority is also interested in pensions for state employees, but that discussion could take multiple years.
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