‘This is not the end’ Alaska legislators fight budget cuts with ‘urgency’

Cover photo: Organizers estimated about 2,000 turned out for a "Save Our State" rally at University of Alaska Anchorage last Tuesday. Grammy award winners "Portugal. The Man" performed. Bass player Zach Carouthers said they were glad to return to Alaska to support a good cause, especially funding for schools. "We got our start in a school," he said. Three of the band members met in a band class at Wasilla High School. (Photo by Angela Gonzalez, Athabascan.)

Some state functions already forced to shutdown; hospice says it’s unable to feed and bathe dying people

Legislators in Alaska missed Friday’s deadline to override $440 million in budget line item vetoes made from Governor Mike Dunleavy, a Republican. They needed 45 votes to override the 182 vetoes.

And, like last week, legislators still cannot agree on a meeting place, much less find the three-fourths majority needed to vote for an override.

But they haven’t given up. 

House Speaker Bryce Edgemon,Yup'ik,, and Senate President Cathy Giessel issued a statement Friday saying: “This is not the end, and the fight to restore funding for essential services continues with a great sense of urgency.” They plan to begin holding floor sessions and finance committee meetings in Juneau today.

The legislative leaders cited cuts that will leave service providers facing dire choices, “Hospice of Anchorage, for example, is unable to bathe and feed dying people.” Some highway projects already underway will be forced to stop work, they said.

Last week, along with dozens of other organizations, the Alaska Federation of Natives called for an override. AFN represents Alaska Natives, some 18 percent of the state’s population.

“Our request has nothing to do with partisan politics, and everything to do with the state’s constitutional responsibilities to its citizens,” wrote AFN President Julie Kitka in a letter to legislators.

Kitka noted the Governor vetoed crucial Village Public Safety Officer funding on the same day U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared a law enforcement emergency in rural Alaska.

Last week, thirty-nine legislators, members of the majority caucus, met in Juneau, the state capital. Twenty-one legislators, all Republicans who sided with the Governor on the vetoes, met in Wasilla, 45 miles outside Anchorage. The governor had designated Wasilla as the site of the special session. However, a legislative legal opinion said it’s the legislature that decides where it will meet, not the governor.

Thousands of Alaskans across the state have turned out for rallies to protest the cuts, while hundreds turned out in support of the governor’s budget cuts.

The new budget went into effect July 1, 2019; the start of the 2020 fiscal year.

And the impact has been immediate: About 12,000 students had their scholarships revoked. A homeless shelter in Anchorage announced it is ending its daytime case management services. The Alaska State Council on the Arts has laid off staff and will close its doors as of Monday, making Alaska the only state in the nation without a statewide arts council. About 1,700 low-income seniors were given little to no notice that their most recent assistance check was their last.

Education and health hit hardest

The University of Alaska saw $136 million, or a 41 percent reduction, to its state-funded operating budget. The Board of Regents is expected to meet to approve a declaration of exigency Monday, which will allow administrators to move swiftly to address the budget shortfall and begin laying off tenured faculty.

The governor vetoed $50 million in Medicaid spending. Combined with reductions legislators approved earlier, the program was reduced by a fifth. In addition adult dental care was cut $27 million. The reductions will make it harder for people to access health care. Hospitals, tribal health organizations, and health care providers will be struggling to regroup and adjust.

Other cuts include $50 million from K-12 school debt reimbursement, $21 million, or one hundred percent, of senior benefits assistance funding, $7 million from Head Start, $7 million from adult public assistance, $3 million from the Village Public Safety Officer program, $3 million from public broadcasting, and $250,000 from the Civil Air Patrol.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a longtime Alaska journalist.

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