Republican senators concerned with scale of proposed budget cuts

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, chairs the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 20, 2019. Committee members seated at the table with him, left to right, are Sens. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, Lyman Hoffman, D- Bethel, and Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna. Committee members have expressed concern about parts of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget proposal. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

While Democratic senators have been most outspoken in their opposition to Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget cuts, it’s the Republicans who control the Senate majority. Several Republican senators on the Finance Committee have expressed concerns. That committee has spent the most time on the budget since Dunleavy introduced it last month.

Key senators are weighing how they’re going to approach the budget. That could have a big impact on everything from what services the state offers to the size of permanent fund dividends.

For the past three weeks, the Senate Finance Committee has been reviewing Dunleavy’s budget.

Republican Sen. Click Bishop is on the committee. He lives a block from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and opposes the size of the cut Dunleavy has proposed for state university funding, equaling $134 million.

“It is a non-starter for me,” Bishop said. “I think we all need to take a step back and look at this problem and let data drive the discussion. And I just don’t think there was a lot of thought put into this cut.”

Bishop said the state should make major changes that will reduce spending. But he said Dunleavy’s budget has caused such a negative public reaction that it’s been difficult to concentrate on meaningful cuts. For that to happen, Bishop wants more research on the effect of possible cuts.

Bishop still hopes lawmakers and the governor can reach agreement.

“I don’t think really at the end of the day anybody wants to get down to where it’s a bare-knuckles, in-the-mud barroom fight over this budget,” he said.

Soldotna Republican Sen. Peter Micciche said the size of Dunleavy’s proposals has started an important conversation. And he said it requires those opposed to the cuts to come up with alternatives.

But Micciche said he wants to hear from the people who will have to implement the cuts mapped out by the governor’s Office of Management and Budget.

“My impression is that OMB found some big numbers and plugged them into a budget, and now we’re hoping that the commissioners can come forward and discuss attainable reductions while still delivering the services required by the little blue book — the Constitution — to deliver,” he said. “And what we’re seeing is a clear disconnect between those that are required to deliver the services and those that produce the budget.”

Micciche said it’s going to take compromise, both on the part of the 60 legislators and the governor.

“What that means is we have to work together,” he said. “And that means that it doesn’t get to be exactly the way I want it to be. And I’m not going to quit, and I’m not going to go home and take my toys with me when it doesn’t work out. Politics is the art of what’s possible.”

Helping to steer the budget to a resolution will be Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman. He’s back as Finance co-chairman after a six-year break. And he’s facing a possible reduction that cuts at the heart of his coastal district: the end of funding for the Alaska Marine Highway System on Oct. 1.

“I thought we have a substantial reduction but not a potential termination,” he said. “So that was a surprise. But the overall direction was not. The magnitude? A little bit more than I anticipated.”

Stedman said he’s hoping for a compromise that will include funding to keep the ferries running.

He said the budget process isn’t about reaching a spending level without regard to the needs of Alaskans. He expects that throughout the budget process, the House and Senate will communicate with the governor. He said Dunleavy proposed a budget that will stop spending state savings.

“I agree with the premise, and I want to work with them to make sure that we fix the fiscal situation and protect the permanent fund and keep the marine highway running at the same time,” he said. “So it’s going to be quite the juggling act.”

Stedman said this year will be the first step in a two- or three-year reduction to the budget.

“We need to fix our problem,” he said. “The generation today needs to fix today’s generation’s budget problems and not pass it onto the future.”

The House is aiming to pass its version of the budget over to the Senate by early April. It’s not clear if the upper chamber will be done with its budget work by the scheduled end of the session on April 14. Under the state constitution, the regular session can last as long as May 15.

Watch the latest legislative coverage from Gavel Alaska:

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