‘What are you going to do?’ Legislators quizzed about budget plans in advance of upcoming session

Friday, January 17, 2020 - 14:52
  • Rep. Kelly Merrick, left, and Sen. Lora Reinbold, right, greet constituents after a legislative town hall meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020 at the Eagle River Town Center building in Eagle River. The meeting was also attended by Rep. Sharon Jackson, who is at upper right behind Reinbold in this photo. (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)

Sam Cotten wanted answers.

The former Eagle River legislator showed up to Tuesday night’s legislative town hall meeting with pointed questions about the state budget for the area’s current crop of legislators.

“Where are you going to go? What are you going to do?” asked Cotten, a lifelong Alaskan whose political career began in 1964-65 as Chugiak High’s first student body president and included a 16-year stint in the Alaska House and Senate.

Cotten said he wanted to know how Sen. Lora Reinbold and Reps. Kelly Merrick and Sharon Jackson planned to balance a budget that’s been running a deficit year after year.

“Are you just going to continue to study it?” he continued. “Do you have a direction right now? Do you think you can achieve enough savings to balance the budget? Are you willing to consider new revenue? Is the oil industry off the table? Are personal income taxes or sales taxes a possibility? You suggested that you’re willing to consider changing the Permanent Fund Dividend formula, and that would perhaps free up money. What are you going to do? Which direction are we headed?”

Reinbold took the first swing at Cotten’s pitch.

“I would audit, audit, audit,” she told Cotten, one of more than 50 people who showed up for the town hall meeting at the Eagle River Town Center Building.

After audits, Reinbold said the next step would be to cut underperforming state programs.

“I would force the commissioners to prioritize based on the governor’s priorities,” she said. “Then I would eliminate the bottom programs — possibly 20 percent of the programs — that are being heavily funded but the outcomes are very poor. Then I would fund, and fund well, the programs that are successful. Right now we’re not doing that.”

Reinbold pointed to education.

“We’re either the first or the second in the nation for funding education with some of the worst outcomes in the nation. We do this year after year after year after year. We absolutely have to change the way we do education,” she said.

Reinbold also suggested the state owns too many buildings.

“I’ve proposed hundreds of amendments, some of them are to get rid of buildings, and that’s another huge discussion,” she said.

At that point, Cotten cut her off.

“Just, maybe shorten that, maybe give us an idea of how much you think you can save by reducing the government footprint. Is there a significant number of dollars there?” he asked.

Reinbold said that’s up to her colleagues in Juneau.

“It depends on the appetite, Sam, you darn well know. You’ve gotta have an appetite to cut. And do they? I don’t know. We have a smorgasbord and we try to cut potato chips and people say the roof is falling.”

She then began listing other areas where she believes the state can become more efficient.

“State workers only have 37 and a half hours a week, why don’t they work 40 hours a week? We could eliminate over 1,000 positions just putting 40 (hours),” said Reinbold, who also suggested public employees aren’t paying their fair share for health care and that the University of Alaska can absorb larger cuts.

Cotten again interjected.

“How much can you realistically expect to reduce state spending?”

Reinbold couldn’t cite a dollar amount, but did say she’d like to see a state spending cap put in place. She also noted that the Department of Health and Social Services has a $3.5 billion budget, for which her solution would be to “tighten eligibility” and reduce wasteful trips for medical care.

“If you fly to a healthcare facility and you don’t go to that doctor’s office, why in the world is the state picking up that airline ticket, those taxis, that hotel? I couldn’t even get that through over in the House. It’s just remarkable, I truly believe that if there’s health care facilities in the area they need to have a preference that they have to go to those first, not just jump on a plane or whatever,” she said.

Reinbold wrapped it up by saying she has consistently voted against state budgets she felt were too high.

“I can tell you it’s not for lack of courage and it’s not for lack of ideas,” she said.

Cotten tried once more to get a specific answer.

“How much you could realistically expect to reduce the size of government, in dollar amounts?” he persisted.

“Sam, as you know there are 60 of us,” Reinbold said.

“I know, but do you have an idea of how much you think you could realistically reduce?” he asked again.

“I think we could reduce government significantly,” she replied. “Significantly.”

At that point Merrick weighed in on the question.

“I would just say kinda segue into that brings up the discussion of a constitutional spending cap and if that’s something the Legislature wants to tackle this session,” she said.

Jackson then spoke up to decry the “abuse” of state funds.

“We have a lot of abuse going on, right? If we can scale back on the abuse, that money we’re spending that’s being abused, that’s a great start,” said Jackson, who went on to say consolidation of some services could help, as could criminal justice reform.

Her main point was that Alaskans should be able to come together to find a solution.

“We have a lot of nuts and bolts to fix,” she said. “The money will take care of itself.”

Cotten tried one last time to get an answer on how much and where cuts could be made.

“I think we’d all love to see better efficiencies, consolidate, all those things are great, but in the big picture you’re in the billions as far as the deficit,” he said. “So can you really get there? Is it feasible to get there by finding new efficiencies or reducing the footprint of government? Is that possible?”

Jackson — who was appointed to her seat after Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom took a job as Commissioner of the Department of Corrections — said she thinks spending cuts are possible as long as everyone is willing to accept the burden equally.

“In every category of this state, what I’ve noticed — I’m new, understand that — but everyone screams when it comes to them. If everybody give a little, we can get a lot done,” she said. “I believe, I just do. So I’m going back in for the second half of this session and I will do all I can. But we have to stop the spending and I will stand on that through my boots.”

Merrick then mentioned some state budget cuts were actually passed on to local municipalities through the reduction in school bond reimbursement.

“Mr. Cotten, if I may, when the governnor proposed significant budget cuts last year, some of them were like the school bond reimbursement. To me that wasn’t really a cut, it was a shift,” she said. “And I look to the constituents to say, ‘Are those the kind of thing that you want local control of? Do you want the state taking care of that kind of thing or are you willing to take that on as a municipality?’ And that’s one thing I look forward to working with members of the (Anchorage) Assembly on. So, to me a cost shift is not an actual cut, because it’s still coming out of your pockets.”

At that point, Reinbold ended the exchange by asking Eagle River Community Patrol leader Cliff Cook to say a few words on local crime. Cook said his patrol has logged nearly 2,000 hours and 20,000 miles. Typically patrol members drive around town looking for suspicious activity and passing information along to police.

“We are getting out there, we are seeing a lot,” he said.

The back-and-forth between Cotten — a former Speaker of the House — and the three current legislators was the highlight of an otherwise low-key town hall in Eagle River, where most who spoke said they want to see spending cuts before legislators impose taxes or use money from the Alaska Permanent Fund to balance the budget.

“We tend to be a more conservative bunch than the rest of the Anchorage area,” summed up Jennifer Bundy, who compared the state’s fiscal situation to a household budget.

When there’s less money coming in, she said, the state needs to spend within its means rather than asking for more money.

“We have to find a way to live with that,” she said.

Many comments were about the Permanent Fund Dividend, with most who testified saying they want legislators to either stick to the constitutionally mandated formula of paying out dividends or change the law.

“If you want to change the statute, change it, but don’t be playing games with the law,” said Merry Braham.

Cris Eichanlaub said he thinks the PFD should be entirely off the table when it comes to paying for state government.

“That fund shouldn’t have anything to do with the budget,” he said. “That PFD is for the people.”

However, Jamie Allard told the legislators that if new revenues are needed, she’d rather the Permanent Fund used instead of new taxes.

“I’d rather see my PFD go then to see a state income tax,” she said.

Other comments ranged from a desire to see Alaska become a “Second Amendment sanctuary” that refuses to enforce federal gun laws to a wish for legislators to keep the upcoming session to 90 days.

One commenter told the legislators she’d like to see them work to prevent Alaska from becoming a “sanctuary state” for illegal immigrants and urged them to reject programs that would increase the number of refugees coming into the state.

That drew a favorable response from Jackson, who said “we’re not going there,” on the sanctuary state issue.

“We need to take care of our own first,” she said.

Although most of the talk focused on cutting the budget, one person did speak in favor of additional spending. Kris Hutchin said she feels cuts to the state ferry system were unfair to coastal Alaskans and believes the state constitution mandates the state provide for transportation.

“It’s cut off their lifeline,” she said.

The legislative session begins Jan. 21 and is scheduled to run through May 20.

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call 257-4274.

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