March 3, 2016
716 W 4th Suite 409
Anchorage, AK 99501
State Capitol, Rm 419
Juneau, AK 99801
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Dear Friends and Neighbors,
With a $4 billion deficit, we all agree that responsible cuts to our budget are necessary. Yet the way the budget is being crafted is a broken process.
The House and Senate each have Finance Committees who work on the budget. But 70% of the legislature does not sit on a Finance Committee. In order to bring more legislators into the budget process, there are budget subcommittees for every department in the state (Resources, Education, etc.) that dig deeper than the full Finance Committee can do with limited time.
The job of these subcommittees is to do a detailed analysis of each department. Every legislator sits on one or more budget subcommittees. These meetings are where the real, detailed work on the budget gets done - or should get done. Each subcommittee then forwards their recommendations on to the Finance Committees, which usually accepts their recommendations.
So the work of the subcommittees is absolutely critical to the process because its design forced us to look at the budgets as closely as possible. Unfortunately, the process has become broken. I’ll use my experience on the Department of Revenue Finance Subcommittee as an example.
This Department oversees the Permanent Fund, with about $50 billion in assets; the Tax Division, which is responsible for collecting billions in revenue; the Retirement Board, which manages tens of billions in retirement funds; Natural Gas Commercialization; the state Treasury Division; Child Support; the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, and more. It’s one of the most important departments in state government, with a $397.5 million budget.
In the business world, especially in tough economic times, accountants would get together with executives and pore over expenditures to look for efficiencies. They would go line by line through the entire budget. They would question every single expenditure to see if it made sense, or could be done more efficiently.
In our budget subcommittee, we had one “overview” lasting about 80 minutes, followed by a 10 minute “close out” to approve the recommendations and move it to the Finance Committee. Sadly, the only reason the “close out” even lasted a full 10 minutes was because I took time to object to moving the budget.
With only 1.5 hours invested in the process, I didn’t think we had spent enough time trying to find efficiencies. You can watch what I had to say here.
So, as is my right as a committee member, I objected and
suggested we should spend more time going through this Department’s budget. Since only the Chair of the subcommittee was there at the meeting, and several members were missing, there were not enough votes to move the budget. So the Chair called in the Co-Chair of Finance, Sen. Pete Kelly to break the tie – even though Sen. Kelly is not a member of the subcommittee.
We can do so much better
Last year we were promised that budget subcommittees would meet regularly between legislative sessions to go through the budgets in detail. It never happened.
At the start of this session, the House and Senate Democrats suggested a “Ways & Means” Committee that could spend the needed time combing through the budget. This idea was rejected.
Democrats then proposed a non-partisan Caucus of the Whole, so that we could have Republicans and Democrats working together to pass a responsible budget. Also rejected.
Instead, the Senate Majority is still wasting huge amounts of time on unconstitutional legislation – like trying to figure out how to ban people they don’t agree with from volunteering in schools – all while skipping over important discussions on multi-million dollar departmental budgets.
By the way - my reward for trying to save the State a little (or maybe even a lot) of money? After the vote was taken and the budget was moved out of committee, Senator Pete Kelly made a veiled threat to kick me off the subcommittee.
These tough times require us all to work together, not steam roll over those who have ideas the Majority doesn’t want to hear. As session moves forward, I will continue to fight for an efficient budget developed through an open and transparent public process. Alaskans deserve nothing less.
Alaska State Senator
District H - Anchorage