The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

By Lee Revis
Editor, Valdez Star 

Painful cuts in Senate operating budget spurs testimony

Draconian budget axes all public radio funding in Alaska, spurring outcry

 


Many Alaskans are unhappy with the state Senate's proposed operating budget – unhappy enough to spend Monday night testifying via teleconference at the Legislative Information Office.

The Senate version of the State's operating budget for the fiscal year, which begins June 1, contains much deeper cuts than the House version.

Few areas of state spending are spared – cuts to Alaska Ferry System, school funding, state parks and domestic violence prevention programs – have all seen a drastic reduction in funding that backers claim will be detrimental to their communities.

Testimony poured into the teleconference to Senate Finance asking for a reconsideration to the programs, including testimony that not spending funds for causes such as domestic violence prevention and the marine highway will be more costly in the long run if funding is cut.

Colleen Stephens of Stan Stephens Cruises testified that the proposed cuts to tourism-based marketing will harm the state's economy because one in 11 jobs in Alaska are connected to tourism and that the might of state dollars cannot be matched by small operators in the private sector.

Few of the cuts go as deep as the proposed cuts to state funding for public radio. The Senate's operating budget cut that funding to zero.

"The thing is that, if we lose our state funding we also lose out federal funding," said Sue Bergstrom, who keeps the books for KCHU public radio in Valdez. "We have to have a non-federally funded match."

Last year's state contribution to KCHU exceeded $124,000 Bergstrom said in an interview from the station's office in the hours before the teleconference, with the federal grant coming in at about $120,000.

"If that goes through we won't get the Federal grant either," Bergstrom said.

That equals 63 percent of the station's budget, according to Bergstrom, over $244,000.

The ripple effect would not only hamstring public radio in Valdez because the station rebroadcasts it's on air offerings throughout Glennallen, Cordova, Whittier, Tatitlek, Chenega and McCarthy.

"It's not cheap to get the word out there," KCHU board president Paul Nyland testified, citing KCHUs broadcast area, which is roughly the size of the state of Ohio. "The bang for the buck for what we invest in public radio is great."

Advocates in other communities in the state also testified that defunding public radio statewide also cuts communications throughout the state, as vast numbers of Alaskans rely on their local public radio stations as their sole source of news and official information – especially during emergencies in remote locations that lack cell phone and internet service.

"It knits our state together," a backer in Sitka testified during the teleconference.

Many backers acknowledged the need for deep cuts in the budget and asked the committee to restore the funding level that was included in the Alaska House version of the budget, which passed with a 23 percent cut in public radio funding.

In early March the Alaska House version of the operating budget also defunded public broadcasting funds but were later restored under pressure from constituents.

Deep cuts in state parks funding is also causing consternation in Valdez. The Valdez City Council passed a resolution during a special meeting last month calling for restoration of funding for the Park Ranger posted in Valdez. The move came after Valdez was notified in an email from Jack Ransom of Alaska State Parks that the area's park ranger position was slated to be cut and the state-run facilities abandoned.

"If the Valdez Ranger is forced transferred, Alaska State Parks will attempt to abandon our facilities in Valdez," Ransom's email stated. "If the proposed cuts are finalized in April these changes will take place July 1, 2015. At this time our only option is to lay off employees and eliminate positions."

Valdez Star photo

Public radio supporters testified before the Senate Finance Committee Monday night at the Valdez Legislative Office after the Senate budget cut all funding for public broadcasting in Alaska.

Testimony on the proposed cut spurred testimony by Harold Blehm of the area's parks advisory board who said the budget cut will imperil public safety and waste past state investment in area parks.

A proposal to retroactively defund new school construction will not effect Valdez according to school board member Alan Sorum. The state is on the hook for 60 percent of the construction cost of the new middle school that opened in Valdez last September.

The defunding of new school construction would apply to new school construction bonds up for voter approval in the Anchorage School District in its upcoming election.

Senate President Kevin Meyer told the Associated Press that the Senate hopes to vote Friday on its version of a state operating budget.

The House can go to a conference committee with the Senate to hammer out a compromise budget if House members do not agree to Senate changes.

 

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