- Associated Press - Thursday, March 27, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - The Senate Finance Committee on Thursday unveiled a $9.2 billion state operating budget, details for which were still being finalized before the bill advances to the floor.

Amendments, including one related to tentative labor agreements, were expected to be taken up Friday, said co-chair Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks.

Any changes between the version of the bill that passes the Senate and the one that passed the House would be hashed out by House and Senate negotiators in a conference committee. Also still outstanding is a plan for addressing Alaska’s unfunded pension obligation.

The draft included an additional $400,000 to support state efforts to move toward taking over the lead role from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a dredge-and-fill permitting program. A Senate subcommittee had cut $750,000 from the $1.4 million requested by the administration and proposed reallocating about $210,000 expected to be left over from a shellfish beach monitoring pilot program. The House cut funding for the effort, which had been given the go-ahead by lawmakers last year.

The draft also partially restores funding that a Senate subcommittee had cut for a program that helps pay the student loans of health care professionals or provides incentive payments if they serve in high-need areas of the state. The draft includes language that the program be administered in “stricter accordance” with state law, directing that there should be an emphasis on improving access to health care to rural residents and improving the distribution of health care professionals providing direct care.

The proposal also cuts by $800,000 tourism-marketing money within the Department of Commerce, according to a summary sheet provided by the committee. It would allow for a $12.5 million appropriation for heating costs at the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, contingent upon the university power plant using diesel as its primary fuel source for at least 60 days.

University system spokeswoman Kate Ripley said by email that the provision, while not included in the board of regents’ budget request, underscores the need for a new heat and power plant. The contingency funding would cover roughly six months of increased fuel costs if the main coal-fired boilers were to fail, causing the campus to have to shift to diesel for heat and electrical generation, she said.

The draft would allow for the use of state funds to pay for firefighting crews if federal funds that currently support the crews fall off. An aide to Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, said that would help ensure the state’s three hot-shot crews, which battle wildfires, remain funded and intact.

The proposal includes language that money appropriated for the Alaska State Troopers not be used to help federal employees enforce the Marine Mammal Protection Act as it relates to sea otters in southeast Alaska. Similar language was included in the budget last year.

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, has raised concerns, shared by some southeast Alaska fishermen, that the critters pose a growing threat to shellfish beds in the region. Stedman introduced a bill last year proposing a bounty on sea otters, which he said was aimed at sending a message to the federal government that he believes something has to be done.

A separate budget bill for state mental health programs includes $500,000 for the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority for a media campaign on fetal-alcohol spectrum disorders. It’s a pet cause of Kelly, who has brought a team together - including the trust’s CEO Jeff Jessee - to look at ways in which the state could combat and eventually end the conditions caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol. The Senate has passed a resolution, introduced by Kelly, urging the governor to establish and support programs to that end.

Jessee said that if the money comes through, the plan would be to bring in experts to help craft a campaign with messages aimed at changing behaviors.



HB266, operating budget: https://bit.ly/1g63eqK

HB267, mental health program budget: https://bit.ly/OYXuZP

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