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OPINION: Budget amendments can't hide $3 billion question

March 18th | Dermot Cole, Alaska Dispatch News Print this article   Email this article  

Don't confuse the hundreds of unsuccessful budget amendments floated by North Pole Rep. Tammie Wilson with a coherent plan to cut the budget by hundreds of millions.

Not even close.

While Wilson thinks offering 243 budget amendments is worthy of balloons, what she led was a theatrical exercise that distracted from the difficult $3 billion question facing Alaska.

It reminds me of her plan a year ago based on imaginary numbers to eliminate research funding at the University of Alaska, which would have decimated the Fairbanks campus.

The net impact of Wilson's amendments this week would have increased spending by more than $1 billion, mainly because she wanted higher dividend payments for 2016 and 2017.

Her filibustering was a nonstop display of micromanagement, oversimplification and inaccurate interpretations of complicated budget statistics.

Some of her amendments would violate existing union contracts, such as her plan to not pay for moving costs for Alaska State Troopers. Others would reduce mental health crisis services required by state law or lead to the loss of federal funding.

Wilson's basic claim is that state employees will magically get more work done if there are fewer of them on the payroll, and that services to the public will not be decreased in the process.

State budgets have been decreased over the last three years. She offered no evidence about the impact of her proposed cuts, just a repeated declaration that managers will be able to "redistribute the workload to existing staff." There was no analysis of the workload.

"These are wish amendments," is how Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara correctly summarized the Wilson plan. "With no evidence, it's a wish," he said.

Dozens of her amendments were for an arbitrary 25 percent cut in so-called "premium pay," which she said was to reduce overtime. There was no discussion on what this would mean to public services or what else would be cut to meet contract requirements.

In addition to overtime, premium pay includes shift differential pay, hazard pay, on-call pay, subsistence pay and standby pay required by contract for employees at the Alaska State Troopers, staff at the Pioneers Home, jails and other parts of the government.

At the Pioneers Homes, for instance, where night shift workers earn more, she wanted a $506,000 premium pay cut, simply saying that "Declining state revenues dictate that expenditures be reduced by taking a fiscally conservative approach to working hours and that state services be provided in a more effective and efficient manner."

She repeated that statement 26 times in her amendments, without explaining what this would mean. If the Wilson amendments rejected by the committee contained a common theme, it was that their consequences were totally unexamined.

For instance, Wilson announced that the state can save $210,000 on school bus inspections by not paying for them anymore. There is a state law that requires the state to inspect buses, which it does through a contractor, but Wilson said this is not a state responsibility.

The state can't save money by having legislators simply announce that somebody else needs to pay. It also can't save money by deleting dozens of positions that have already been deleted from the budget, another repeated subject in Wilson's amendments.

She claims there are millions in ghost savings, but eliminating positions that have already been eliminated and are not funded will not save a dime, according to state budget analysts.

She proposed cutting funding to the University of Alaska by $16 million and said that as long as the state "keeps giving" money to the university, it won't improve or take steps to change. She cited a number of misleading graduation statistics, as she did a year ago when she wanted to eliminate funding for research.

In other amendments, she proposed cutting $3 million to end participation in the WAMI program, which supports Alaskans attending medical school at the University of Washington. She proposed cutting $100,000 in anti-suicide grants, saying it was not a proper function for government.

Wilson proposed cutting two civil rights compliance employees in the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, which would trigger the loss of other positions in an office required by federal law. She said, "If the federal law requires it, let 'em pay for it."

She proposed eliminating $2 million in pre-kindergarten grants, saying they are not required by the Constitution and that unidentified sources of money are available for poor families to send children to a "great private childcare facility."

Wilson said two positions at the state arts council should be cut, with the work redistributed to the remaining three or four employees. The $200,000 cut would lead to a loss of $2.1 million in private and federal grants and the collapse of the Alaska State Council of the Arts, said Ketchikan Rep. Dan Ortiz. "I don't believe this would collapse the entire program," Wilson said.

Because of the matching funds, the entire program would collapse.

She also proposed cutting $100,000 for storage and winterizing maintenance at the pool still under construction at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, saying it seems excessive. She said "money's not free and somebody's gonna have to pay for it." She didn't say who would pay for it.

The state has built a new library and archives in Juneau and Wilson proposed eliminating $900,000 of the funds to operate it and maintain it, which would close the building.

She withdrew the amendment, saying she only wanted to "make a point."

I am not sure of her point, but I think she wants to say she tried to cut the budget, her amendments failed, and she doesn't want a reduction in the Permanent Fund dividend or new taxes.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Media, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email editor@reportalaska.com.

 


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