Alaska's low oil prices and production have created multi-billion budget deficits, and tough decisions will have to be made about which public services are cut or kept. The next budget cycle will not have any savings to fall back on, and the budget has already been cut by over 40% over the last several years.
We will continue to find cuts where it makes sense, but we must also protect those services that are important to rural Alaska. This includes education (our schools are the center of many of our communities), public safety (including both our troopers and VPSO's), health care (and village clinics), transportation (airport and road maintenance), and energy support for rural residents (through PCE).
There are a total of 40 representatives, but only 4 of them are rural legislators. This means substantial cuts are once again likely to be proposed to rural areas. Often these cuts are disproportionate relative to our population. It's through a combination of seniority and experience that we can overcome our low numbers in the legislature to fight back against such cuts.
Our schools are important for a variety of reasons. They serve to educate our youth and prepare them to get jobs that keep our communities strong. And for many of our villages the school is where potlaches, basketball, dance festivals, and other community gatherings occur. Not only must we support our schools, but we must also work to improve other education related efforts. This includes support for pre-kindergarten programs and distance delivery technology. As the co-chair of finance I have supported increased education funding. I have helped to forward fund education to provide for stable funding. I have voted for school bond debt reimbursement and for new schools in our villages. And I carried a Senate bill that increased the internet capacity in our small rural schools.
Starting in the 1970's urban areas received funds for hydroelectric projects and transmission lines. More recently they received over a billion in natural gas tax credits. As part of that package rural Alaska received the "power-cost-equalization" (PCE) program.
PCE is rural Alaska's energy assistance program. And there has been extreme pressure to drain the program and use it to balance Alaska's budget. We must not allow this program to be de-funded. Once it goes away it will likely never return.
Many of you may have noticed a credit on your electricity bills. Every household in our small towns and villages are beneficiaries of this program. The average subsidy received in St. Michael, for example, was nearly $1,900 last year.
How it works is simple. There is $1 billion in a fund. It is invested, and each year it earns money. In the past few years it has earned anywhere from $40-$60 million, and that money is used to bring down electricity costs.
Back in March of this year the $1 billion in the PCE program was not reauthorized by a margin of only 1 vote. But through a combination of experience, an understanding of the complexities of the budget process, and negotiation we were able to secure the votes needed upon reconsideration to save the program.
I expect this fight to continue, and I stand ready to defend rural Alaska's energy needs.
Rural Alaska's airports are vitally important to getting services, groceries, and health care in and out of our communities. But we are already starting to see a reduction in maintenance to some of our rural airports. This next year's budgeting process will be even more difficult than the last, and there may be efforts to divert resources to larger airports where there are other transportation options (such as being connected to the road system). We need to keep our rural snow removal budgets healthy not only to keep supplies and mail coming in on a regular basis but also for life saving reasons such as medivacs.
The permanent fund was created as an ingenious way of allowing future generations to benefit from Alaska's oil wealth. Oil is a finite resource that will one day run out. Alaska's leaders didn't want all the oil money to go to just 2-3 generations. So they created the permanent fund. Oil revenues are invested in the permanent fund, and the earnings can be used to pay for dividends and public services. As long as we do not take out more than the fund earns then the benefits of oil wealth can be passed on indefinitely to future generations. We owe it to our children and their children and their children to protect the permanent fund.
Water & sewer is a basic need that we can all agree is a hallmark of any first world nation. And yet many of our communities either do not have the infrastructure in place, or their pipes are in need of major maintenance. I grew up with a "honey bucket" in Nome, and sadly many folks still have what should be relegated to a museum. When I was the co-chair of finance in charge of the capital budget I was successful in adding millions of dollars to the village safe water program. But it was a fight. As we move forward with increasing budget shortfalls I fear that some legislators may not be supportive of appropriating the full matching funds needed to receive federal water & sewer funds. I think my seniority and position in leadership will help to ensure that this issue is not left on the back burner.
This may be more commonly known as the longevity bonus program. It provides a small stipend to seniors based on income. Most of our elders live on fixed incomes, and yet the cost of living continues to go up. These are the folks who helped build our state, and we should continue to fully fund the program.
This program is particularly important in villages where there is no tax base. In places like Mountain Village these funds pay for heat to keep the water lines from freezing during winter. Other villages use the money to pay for city workers. They in turn apply for state & federal grants for landfill operations and transportation improvements. Others maintain the water & sewer lines. In places that do have a tax base (like Nome) if this money disappears then either services get reduced or property/sales taxes have to go up.
In the last few years there has been a major push to increase public safety. Funding has been increased for our troopers, crime lab, prisons, and courts. And I've supported all of these. And yet year after year I've found myself having to fight off amendments to reduce funding for the Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) program in our villages. It just boggles my mind that some folks do not hold our villages in the same light as urban areas when it comes to keeping folks safe. Earlier this year there was an amendment in finance to reduce the VPSO program by $1 million. I literally began to filibuster the amendment as a way of educating everyone on the importance of the program. I also got one of my urban colleagues to introduce an amendment to the amendment to change it from a "minus" $1 million to a "plus" $1 million. In the end no cuts were made, but this is an issue that we will no doubt continue to face.
Copyright © 2020 Neal Foster For House - All Rights Reserved.