Opposition strong in Dunleavy budget testimony in Bethel

Bethel resident Vicki Malone testifies against Gov. Dunleavy’s budget on March 23, 2019.
(Photo credit Katie Basile / KYUK)

Twenty-five people came out to testify about Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget to a full room in Bethel on Saturday. Dunleavy campaigned last year on the promise of a full Permanent Fund Dividend, which would be $3,000. To make that happen, Dunleavy plans to cut $1.6 billion in funding.

Susan Taylor is a long-time Bethel resident who testified against Gov. Dunleavy’s proposed budget. She held up a slide from the presentation that two lawmakers overseeing the testimony had handed out to the audience.

“Say this happens and we get our $3,000. Even the big families where it’s multiplied out, these cuts are going to cost us more than what this check is,” Taylor said.

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, a Bethel Democrat who represents most of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in the state House, and Rep. Andrew Josephson, a member of the House Finance Committee, oversaw the testimony on Saturday.

Dunleavy’s budget cuts would decimate or erase a lot of services that people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta rely on. One of these is Medicaid expansion. The governor wants to cut $249 million from state matching funds, which would jeopardize federal funds. Walter Jim, the Board Chair of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, which is the largest healthcare provider in the region, spoke out against that cut.

“Many patients do not have the money to pay for a plane ticket to Bethel or even a sub-regional clinic,” Jim said.

The YKHC board came out against the budget just two days before the hearing. Medicaid funding made up 57 percent of YKHC’s budget last year, according to YKHC CEO Dan Winkleman.

People spoke out against the deep cuts to K-12 education, Power Cost Equalization, and the Head Start programs. Gov. Dunleavy would slash $357,958 from Head Start, which would also eliminate federal funding.

The region’s biggest school district, the Lower Kuskokwim School District, stands to lose $15 million, or about 17 percent, of its state funding. Dunleavy proposed to cut state reimbursement for school construction bonds. LKSD needs to move a school in Napakiak and build a new one after the village of Newtok moves to its new location.

Dunleavy also wants to cut $3 million from the Village Public Safety Officer Program. There are currently only eight VPSOs for 48 villages in the Y-K Delta. That cut compelled the Association of Village Council Presidents to cut out funding for regional VPSOs in its fourth quarter budget for this current fiscal year.

Then, there’s state funding for local government. The City of Bethel stands to lose $393,287. That would cut positions and abolish the public library, the Teen Center, and public transit. Mayor Fred Watson wasn’t surprised by Dunleavy’s budget cuts, but he urged lawmakers to look for other revenue sources.

“Why haven’t we looked at changes to tax credits, changes to taxes on oil?” Watson said.

Other cuts could jeopardize funding for Bethel’s Winter House and the Tundra Women’s Coalition, hurting some of the most vulnerable people in the Y-K Delta, according to Eileen Arnold, executive director of TWC.

Public broadcasting also fell under the ax. KYUK board chair Max Angellen came down from Kwethluk to protest Dunleavy’s cuts to public broadcasting.

“Our tribal governments and agencies and all others listen to what’s going to happen next, like for this meeting today. We heard it on the radio; that’s why I’m here,” Angellen said.

No one in the room testified in favor of Dunleavy’s budget. Several residents made it a point to say that they would gladly take a lower Permanent Fund Dividend if it meant that these programs would stay.

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