Petersburg Pilot -

Legislative session finally ends with budget agreement

 


The state legislature has finally reached a budget agreement, drawing a “collective sigh of relief from Alaska,” as Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D-Sitka) put it.

The $5 billion budget will include funds pulled from the Constitutional Budget Reserve to balance it. The state still faces a nearly $4 billion budget hole in fiscal year 2017.

This year’s legislative session went over seven weeks as legislators couldn’t reach a compromise. It sparked the possibility of a partial government shutdown on July 1 that had Governor Bill Walker sending layoff notices to more than 10,000 state employees.

“It was sort of a God-awful process, and it shouldn’t ever happen again,” Kreiss-Tomkins said of this year’s session. “But the final document, I think that does OK by coastal Alaska, and I think that’s important.”

He added that he felt good about three highlights for Southeast Alaska.

Kreiss-Tomkins called the education funding formula whole, adding the final budget removes “deep, meat cleaver cuts.” The Senate had called for $45.7 million in cuts that weren’t granted.

The final budget added back $16.5 million, though that’s still less than last year’s budget.

The delay in a decision caused uncertainty for school districts statewide. Petersburg’s ended up passing an $8.4 million general fund on June 9 without knowing what the final numbers were so it could meet the state’s deadline.

School District Finance Director Karen Quitslund said she may not have survived the year if she’d been new at the job, calling it “a very interesting budget year.”

Kreiss-Tomkins also noted that $1.75 million was restored to the ferry system, coastal communies’ highway, along with $250,000 for public broadcasting.

The ferry service received a total cut of $4.6 million, which will impact future service. Jeremy Woodrow, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said the department is still working on the winter schedule.

The summer schedule is set to remain the same.

Public broadcasting, at one point, faced a 100 percent cut that would’ve ended Petersburg’s KFSK radio service, General Manager Tom Abbott said. KFSK has a total budget of $480,000 in revenue: $137,000 in state funds, $125,000 in federal funds and $218,000 in local revenue.

Without the state money, the station would’ve fallen below federal qualifying minimums, resulting in a 55 percent funding cut.

The state’s final budget will still mean some cuts in programming, but Kreiss-Tomkins said the blow was softened for what is a few communities only source of news.

As for Medicaid expansion, another staller in a budget decision, he noted that it didn’t progress this session, but will likely get a special session later this year as Walker is a strong supporter.

The budget is basically what the House had approved, but the Senate had rejected at the end of May.

It’s now up to Walker to sign the bill into law.

As for future legislative sessions, Kreiss-Tomkins said he believes discussions should start sooner.

“It’s a tragedy this took so long to happen,” he added. “There needs to be way, way better communication.”

Senator Bert Stedman (District R) could not be reached for comment by press time.

 

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