Rural Alaskans choose state services over PFD
The House Finance Committee took public comment March 25 on House Bills 39 and 40 dealing with spending plans for state money over the next budget year.
Testifying from Nome were four women who commented on funding issues dealing with potential cuts to education and public services.
HB 39 makes appropriations for operating expenses and loan program expenses of state government. HB 40 makes appropriations for the operating and capital expenses of the state’s integrated comprehensive mental health program.
The opportunity to comment allowed Alaskans to say whether they preferred a fat dividend check, say around $3,000, and have services cut or if they wanted to have smaller or no PFD in October but hang onto services currently sitting on the chopping block.
The March 25 session served folks in the rural parts of the state: Kotzebue, Nome, Kenai, Wrangell, Kodiak, Cordova, Nikiski, Petersburg and folks from off-net sites by telephone. House Finance Committee Co-Chair Rep. Neal Foster of Nome moderated most of the session.
The testimony from the rural Alaska residents participating favored education, health care, social services and safety and transportation issues—maintenance of snow machine, sled dog and fat tire bike trails through the self-funded SnowTrac program. Keeping funds for public radio came up again and again.
Janet Balice of Nome, early childhood education specialist, favored reduced PFDs in favor of education funding.
“I am opposed to drastic cuts in early childhood education and particularly to those in Head Start and Early Head Start,” she said.
“As a teacher I am aware of the needs of our youngest Alaska students and the trauma and in Northwest Alaska the very high child abuse rates. Head Start gives priority to the lowest income students so the student with the greatest need are being helped in our Head Start programs which feature emotional help, parenting help and food. This program has been very helpful,” she said. “I am in favor of a limited PFD set every year. Our economy is based on a commodity—oil, which isn’t at a high price right now, so we need to find a different way to fund our economy.” Balice brought up an income tax that was in effect when she came to Alaska in 1976.
Ken Coleman of Kenai called for reducing the PFD in the short term and establishing income tax for the long run— just put back the money for trails for skiers, bicycles, sled dogs and snowmobiles, Coleman said. He also advocated for funding for the Alaska Marine Highway System, allowing Southeast residents to get around via ferries.
Melanie Bahnke of Nome and CEO of nonprofit Kawerak, Inc. ticked some of the programs on the long list offered to Seward Peninsula, Bering Strait and Norton Sound villages through the agency and in jeopardy from state budget cuts: Child Advocacy Center, Adult Basic Education, Village Public Safety Officers and Head Start, which serves 200 children in the region. “The state money brings us 4.2 times more in federal funding,” Bahnke said. She testified in opposition to having the Power Cost Equalization moved around into a different state budget category. She added that Western Alaska has the highest rate of crimes against women and children. “Don’t cut the Village Public Safety Officer program,” Bahnke urged.
“Education should not have to compete with the PFD,” said Terry Walker, an educator in Kotzebue.
Deb Trowbridge, a parent, foster parent and regional coordinator of Head Start program urged the state government to maintain funds for education from early childhood to university level. “The university creates jobs and educates teachers,” Trowbridge said. “It is devastating to force youngsters out of state to find the education they need.”
“The PFD cannot be a trade-off for education funding,” Aleisha Mollen of Wrangell, declared.
In southeast communities, folks came out loud and strong for keeping ferries— their road system — churning along the Marine Highway System. Most of the people offering testimony indicated a willingness to leave some or all of their PFD with the state to mitigate drastic cuts proposed by Gov. Michael Dunleavy.
Some recognized a need and expressed a willingness to raise revenue through a head tax, an income tax, or a state sales tax. “Put the money back for public radio,” Julie Hersey of Petersburg said, “for emergency connections and communications for earthquakes and such.” Hersey said, “Take my PFD! I am willing to pay for these services.”
“The Marine Highway is our road, take some money from your highways to fund the ferries,” Dan Reum of Cordova said.
Over the three hours of testimony, only three participants said they agreed with Dunleavy’s budget cuts and hands off their PFDs. “Don’t cut the PFD. I can spend it better myself that the state can,” said one.
Sue Steinacher of Nome did not agree with those who prefer the October PFD payday over human services. She opposed a sales tax that would hurt rural Alaskans, where goods are more expensive than on the road system, but was in favor of a combination of reduced PFDs and a progressive income tax.