Legislators moving funds from all over to cover budget issues

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As legislators make cuts to the state’s budget, they’re looking to draw money from various state funds to cover costs. But some of these changes are raising concerns.

The House Finance Committee is considering a budget bill that would cut state government spending $418 million more than the 100 million in cuts Governor Bill Walker proposed.

House Bill 256 would change the source of funding for two budget items. A $76.7 million payment to the Teachers’ Retirement System would be paid from a fund that pays for college scholarships and grants.

And $24.7 million for the University of Alaska would come from the Power Cost Equalization Fund, rather than the operating budget.

Big Lake Republican Representative Marc Neuman says the proposal draws on available funds to meet the committee’s priority: balancing the state’s budget. Neuman is the committee’s co-chairman.

“We’re still in the first innings here,” said Neuman. “You know, we’re trying to make sure we’re setting up the budget for the final decisions that we have to do.”

The Teacher’s Retirement System would receive money from the Higher Education Investment Fund, which was started four years ago with 400 million dollars. It was launched to fund Alaska Education Grants – which are for post-secondary students with unmet financial needs – and Alaska Performance Scholarships, which are for students with high grades.

If the state draws out similar amounts , the fund would be exhausted in a few years. Neuman says he expects all current grant and scholarship recipients to continue to receive the money.

The $25 million for the university is a small share of the overall $900 million Power Cost Equalization Fund.

But the proposal concerns Newhalen resident Evelynn Trefon. She’s a board member for a small regional electric co-op, whose customers benefit roughly ninety dollars per month from cost equalization.

“Power cost equalization was set aside as a fund to help rural Alaskans and it wasn’t designed to help the University of Alaska,” Trefon said. “They need to look at the budget situation and figure out their own source of revenue funding. And power cost equalization is essential for Rural Alaskans.”

Neuman says drawing money for the university this year shouldn’t have any affect on PCE payments.

“This was excess funds,” said Neuman. “It’s funds that weren’t needed to make the mandatory, statutory payment for power cost equalization. It has no effect on paying PCE or any future payments.”

The House Finance Committee also cut a thirty-five million dollar payment that Walker planned for community revenue sharing. If this change is kept, it would be the second straight year that the state didn’t add money to the revenue sharing program.

Alaska Municipal League Executive Director Kathie Wasserman is concerned about the issue. She noted that rural areas depend on the money to provide basic services.

“The large communities – it will impact them,” Wasserman said. “The small communities, it could devastate. And then, when you look at the other cost shifting that is going on, due to the budget crunch that we have, I’m not sure how some municipalities are going to make it through.”

Neuman says he’s aware of the concern, and says the committee would like to make changes that would make revenue sharing more secure.

“Everything is on the table right now. I’m certainly cognizant of the needs of a lot of the communities in the state of Alaska, particularly the small, rural villages across Alaska, and their ability to do their governmental functions,” said Neuman “And yes, we’re certainly taking those under consideration.”

The committee also cut $25 million from the Public Employee Retirement System. That money could be restored in the next week, based on the details of a state actuarial analysis of the pension obligations.

And it proposed a cut of roughly $25 million for the liquefied natural gas pipeline. Committee members want more details about how the money would be spent before budgeting it. Walker asked for the money to prepare the pipeline’s front-end engineering and design work.

This week, the committee has been hearing public testimony on the budget from residents statewide, ahead of a vote on the budget. It would then head to a vote by the full House before being considered by the Senate.

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Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at akitchenman@alaskapublic.org.