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By BECKY BOHRER
Associated Press 

Lawmakers grappling with proposals to balance the state's coffers

Tough choices ahead in Juneau as cuts and new revenues are debated

 

Source: New Sustainable Alaska Plan

A pie-chart breakdown on proposed revenues and cuts under Gov. Bill Walker's proposed budget. See story below.

Alaskans this coming week will begin getting a sense for where the House might cut the state budget with subcommittees poised to make spending recommendations. A Senate committee plans to hear legislation that would allow women to get up to a year's worth of birth control at once under their insurance coverage. And a Senate committee reviewing options for use of Alaska Permanent Fund earnings plans to hear a proposal to constitutionally protect the annual dividend that most Alaskans receive.

Here are a few things to watch for in the state Legislature this week:

BUDGET:

The Senate Labor & Commerce Committee will host public testimony regarding Gov. Walker's proposed individual income tax Thursday beginning at 6 p.m. according to Michaela Goertzen, of the Senate Majority press office.

"Citizens may testify in-person at their local LIO; submit written testimony to be placed on the record and distributed to committee members; or call to testify by phone," she said in a press release Monday. "There are a limited number of phone lines to the Capitol; please plan to attend and testify at your local LIO."

House subcommittees tasked with delving into department budgets and making recommendations for cuts are hoping to wrap up their work, with a number of subcommittees planning to close out this coming week. The House Finance Committee, which will draft its own version of the state operating budget, will take into account those recommendations. House Finance Committee co-chair Steve Thompson said the committee is working hard to get the budget to the House floor by March 9.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, House Finance plans to hear an analysis of the economic impacts of the fiscal options facing the state as it grapples with a multibillion-dollar budget deficit amid chronically low oil prices.

BIRTH CONTROL:

The Senate Health and Social Services Committee on Wednesday plans to hear SB 156. It would require health insurance companies to pay claims for up to a year's supply of prescription contraception at one time.

The bill's sponsor, Senate Minority Leader Berta Gardner, said it's an issue of convenience, particularly for women in rural areas or who otherwise don't always have easy access to women's health services. The Anchorage Democrat said the measure also would reduce unintended pregnancies and provide cost savings in not needing to make repeated doctor or pharmacy visits.

The bill would apply to insurance coverage and Medicaid, though it calls for the state to seek a Medicaid plan amendment. It includes an exemption for certain religious employers.

DIVIDEND:

The Senate State Affairs Committee on Tuesday heard SJR 1, a proposal from Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, to put the formula for the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend in the state Constitution.

In looking for budget solutions, legislators are considering the use of Alaska Permanent Fund earnings to help pay for state government. The earnings reserve is the fund from which dividends are currently paid.

The committee has heard several approaches to the use of earnings, including from Gov. Bill Walker's administration and Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage. Walker has warned that if the state stays on its current track, drawing down on savings, the dividend would be threatened. Both his and McGuire's proposals would change how dividends are calculated.

Wielechowski said there seems to be widespread agreement that the dividend has become something critical to many Alaskans and should be protected. Putting the dividend in the Constitution is really the only way you can do that, he said.

E-FILE TAX

By RASHAH McCHESNEY

Tucked within most of the tax bills Gov. Bill Walker submitted to lawmakers this session is a provision that would require Alaskans who pay taxes to e-file, or face a fine.

Paper returns would be assessed a penalty of $25, or 1 percent of the total taxes paid, whichever is greater. It would cover everything that must be paid to the state, from alcohol to fishing taxes.

The proposal is a move to keep the Department of Revenue from being inundated with paper.

"Corporate income tax returns are big. They're attached to federal income tax returns. They have schedules and support documents. Sometimes they're 200 to 300 pages long, and they come in the mail," said Ken Alper, director of the Department of Revenue's Tax Division. "We have a staff of five to six people whose job is like to open the mail, scan these documents and data (and) enter all of that stuff into a computer."

The electronic filing system is the result of years of modernization that Alper says came from the legislature providing $34.7 million to the department to update antiquated systems.

Alaskans can already pay several types of taxes and licensing fees using the Revenue Online system. That includes corporate income tax, tobacco tax and licensing, mining and motor fuel licenses and fuel and oil and gas property tax, according to the department.

Alper said the remaining tax programs should be fully integrated into the system by the end of February.

 

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