The Alaska House Finance Committee is combing through and amending its draft state operating budget after multiple days filled with public testimony last week. State news outlets reported Tuesday afternoon that representatives proposed restoring funding in areas like behavioral health and public broadcasting.
In their testimony to the finance committee last week, Haines and Skagway residents opposed cuts to libraries, public radio, revenue sharing and senior services.
Note: In the interest of full disclosure, KHNS would be impacted by some of the budget cuts at issue in this story.
As the legislators listened in Juneau, residents from across the state called in to make their case for or against certain cuts or ways to raise revenue. Alaska is facing a financial crisis due to low oil prices.
Many of the residents who testified prefaced their comments by saying they understood the difficult position lawmakers are in.
“I understand of course there will be some cuts and I’m prepared to make them and help our community survive them,” said Haines resident Heather Lende. “But education, really? I urge you not to do that. Libraries? No. Mentally ill, elders, our ferries, the lifeblood of our communities here in Southeast, public broadcasting? Of course, we’ll do our share, but 100 percent? That’s draconian.”
Lende was referring to a proposed 100 percent cut to state grant funding for public broadcasting. Skagway resident Deb Potter also spoke against cuts to public radio.
“Community radio really is our only link, not only to the outside world but to local news events as well,” Potter said. “In Skagway like so many other small communities around our great state, public radio is our only source for critical information like weather, road closures and ferry schedules.”
Another proposed cut would reduce funding for the Online With Libraries program, or OWL. It supports high-speed internet connections at libraries. Cherri Price spoke against that cut.
“Haines is remote. Are you aware of that?” Price asked. “We have an excellent public library. We cannot lose our internet, we rely on it for education. We’re a multicultural community, we have lots of culture and education programs that require the internet for success. So I’d ask you to please revisit and reinstate funding for OWL.”
Some of the Haines residents who testified pointed out that they were doing so using the library’s OWL system.
Mayor Jan Hill also spoke in defense of funding for public libraries and radio. But first, she emphasized the serious hit the borough would take if a proposed reduction to community revenue sharing went through.
“The loss of funding in revenue sharing makes us have to think about things like increasing our sales tax or property taxes or any other number of increasing taxes to our citizens,” Hill said. “It’s just a very difficult thing to consider.”
Haines resident Donald Hartman asked the legislators to keep funding for senior and disability services. Hartman said he gets around in an electric wheelchair, and he spent much of his life in medical institutions.
“I literally ran away to come back home to Haines. I know there had to be another way to live my life,” Hartman said. “I got hooked up with Southeast Alaska Independent Living, also known as SAIL. It changed everything for me. They helped me get hooked up with home support so I can live independently.”
SAIL Assistant Director Sierra Jimenez said potential cuts to senior community-based grants would directly affect SAIL’s services.
The budget cuts proposed by the House Finance Committee are not final. On Tuesday afternoon, the committee was scheduled to hear amendments to the operating budget. Both the House and Senate need to vote on their versions of the budget before coming together to work on a final plan.