Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott spent about 40 minutes talking to KHNS on Wednesday about local budget concerns. The state is facing a nearly 4-billion-dollar deficit and major cuts to state-funded programs and agencies are on the way.
Mallott is from Yakutat and says some cuts proposed by the House and Senate to essential services in Southeast are “unfair.” He also says that despite the word being thrown around at every turn, Alaska is not in the swells of budget crisis. It’s a budget situation. Whatever you call it, Alaskans are in for some big changes to services and programs once an fiscal year 17 budget is passed.
“It would be remarkable, and I’m speaking personally here, if a state with a budget gap of roughly $4 billion of a $5 billion budget … was able to resolve it within a single legislative session. We would be looked at by the rest of the world, and those who invest, we would look very, very good. And if we don’t, we will look very, very bad.”
As far as coming up with an agreeable solution, Mallott says he’s optimistic the legislature will come up with a resolution during these last 20 or so days of the regular session. Last year, the legislature approved the budget in mid-June, barely avoiding a government shutdown.
“They have been working, certainly from day one and working hard at hearings and focusing first on reducing the cost of government which has been taken care of at least to the degree that both the House and Senate have their budgets finalized and are ready to go to a conference committee.”
Senate leaders recently introduced bills that propose increased contributions to Public Employees Retirement System and Teachers’ Retirement System, or PERS and TRS. Mallott says the administration is firmly conveying to lawmakers that this suggestion would create an unfair burden.
“What we would like to see is, and the governor has said very clearly in all of his communications with the legislature, is that we all need to part of engaging and reducing the costs of state government. But it should be fair and equal across every segment of society, the economy and across every region of the state.”
As for cuts to the ferry system, Mallott calls the Alaska Marine Highway a core part of Alaska’s overall transportation system. A recent study, prepared by the Juneau-based McDowell Group, found that the ferry system generates a return of more than $2 to the state for every $1 invested.
“It isn’t another program area to be cut. We don’t look at the road between Anchorage and Seward and say ‘oh, we have a budget crisis, we’re going to stop paying for the maintenance of one lane of that highway in order to reduce the cost of state government.’ We shouldn’t view the marine highway system in that light at all and unfortunately some have.”
The back and forth of cutting and restoring funding has been challenging and exhausting for all, Mallott says. He recalls one weekend in February where he and Governor Bill Walker, reviewed proposed cuts. He says they restored some money for early childhood education, a district attorney’s office in Dillingham, and public broadcasting.
“There were also a lot of cuts and they were very hard coming. And from my perspective as Lieutenant Governor, we can continue to reduce the cost of government. We need to resolve and put this fiscal matter behind us so that we can focus on growing Alaska and meeting the needs of Alaskans once again as a major priority.”
Mallott capped off the talk by urging residents in Haines, Klukwan and Skagway to speak out on issues important to them.
“In the next three weeks of the remaining legislative session, very critical decisions that will affect Alaska’s future for generations are going to be made.”
Full audio of the interview: