- Associated Press - Sunday, March 8, 2015

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - The focus this week will be on the House, which is expected to take up the state’s operating budget.

The House Finance Committee is working to finalize its version of the budget, with amendments scheduled for Tuesday. The bill is scheduled for the House floor later in the week.

The committee heard hours of testimony and received hundreds of emails, including support for areas that saw cuts such as public broadcasting, early education programs, Medicaid expansion and the state ferry system. Finance co-chairs Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, and Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, indicated some adjustments could be made. But they and others also have said that cuts are needed, and difficult decisions will have to be made.

The budget, as it stands, accepts Gov. Bill Walker’s proposal to forward fund education for 2017 at 90 percent. But that issue and a broader discussion on education funding is not settled.

The challenge for lawmakers is balancing attempts to downsize state government without sending the economy into a tailspin. Low oil prices have exacerbated the state’s budget deficit, projected to be in the billions this year and next.



Minority Democrats say the proposed cuts - four times more than what the committee proposed this time last year in unrestricted general funds for nonformula agency operations - are too much, too fast. The minority could hold some influence over what ultimately is included in the budget since legislators expect they will need a three-fourths vote to tap the constitutional budget reserve fund to help cover budget costs.

Formula programs, like education and Medicaid, are budget drivers. Senate Finance co-chair Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, plans to introduce a bill aimed at reforming Medicaid this week.

In an interview last month, Kelly said he wouldn’t rule out expansion and reform happening in the same year “as long as there was a substantive piece of reform that we were confident was going to be in place before the expansion was enacted.”

Walker has made expansion a priority but has refused to budge on calls from the GOP-led House to introduce a bill of his own dealing with that issue. While there’s a Democratic expansion bill in the House, many in the majority feel Walker should take the lead. Walker included elements of expansion within his operating budget proposal, but the House Finance Committee has stripped those.

A number of lawmakers have indicated that they would like to see reforms to the current program before moving toward expansion.

The budget is one of the things to watch for this week. Here are two others:

-CONFIRMATION HEARINGS: The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to hold a confirmation hearing Friday for Attorney General Craig Richards. Richards and Walker are former law partners.

Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said the fact the two were law partners should not prohibit Richards’ confirmation. He said Richards seems to have the qualifications and did not know off-hand of any potential issues or concerns with his nomination. He said there is a vetting process and he’s encouraged committees to vet all nominees for confirmation thoroughly.

House and Senate committees plan to hold confirmation hearings this week for Adjutant Gen. Laurie Hummel for commissioner of Military and Veterans’ Affairs.

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-UNIONS-RELIGIOUS EXEMPTIONS: The Senate Labor and Commerce Committee is set to hear a bill Tuesday related to religious exemptions from unions.

State law calls for public employees to pay dues to their unions or employee associations. However, there is an exemption to protect the rights of non-association for workers with proven religious convictions. Employees under that exemption must pay an amount equivalent to regular union dues and fees that the union then contributes to a charity of its choice that is not affiliated with a religious, labor or employee organization.

SB 44, from Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, would allow in those cases for choice of charity to rest with the employee, not the union.

The bill also would apply to the section of law dealing with Alaska Railroad union dues.

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Online:

Alaska Legislature: https://akleg.gov/

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