Legislators are poring through Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s request for additional spending for the current state budget year. Last week the governor asked for about $260 million in added state General Fund expenditures for the current Fiscal Year 2020 spending plan.
Supplemental appropriations are common and typically cover unexpected expenses that occur during the year after the Legislature completes, and the governor signs, the state operating and capital budgets.
This year’s supplemental is unusually high, however, because of the heavy cost of last summer’s wildfires and decisions by the Legislature and governor to sharply cut state Medicaid spending.
Firefighting costs on state, municipal and private lands totaled $110.6 million for fires last summer. The governor is asking for an additional $16 million to defray any costs for fires that may break out this spring.
That does not include state funds expended responding to fires on federal lands, like the Swan Lake fire on the Kenai Peninsula, which occurred in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The federal government will repay the state for those costs, Chris Maisch, the state forester, told the Senate Finance Committee last Thursday. Fires in the Mat-Su region are the state’s responsibility, however.
The Medicaid part of the supplemental appropriation amounts to $128.3 million and results mainly because the state Department of Health and Social Services was unable to achieve cost savings it had projected last spring, Neil Steininger, new director of the state Office of Management and Budget, told the senate committee.
Medicaid is a joint federal-state program that provides health care to low-to-modest income Alaskans that is mostly paid for by the federal government. Federal requirements prevented the state from achieving most of its reductions but $38.43 million in savings did occur, which is one achievement, Steininger told the committee.
In general budget developments, state Department of Corrections officials told the senators that it will take 12 to 18 months to refurbish and staff up for a reopening of the Palmer Correctional Center, on the Glenn Highway north of Palmer. Corrections officials told the senators they see no obstacles in recruiting to fill positions for the facility. The department is now working to fill about 90 vacancies for corrections officers throughout the state prison system.
About $6 million is also included in the supplemental budget for the Alaska Psychiatric Institute in Anchorage, which has been troubled. Most of the money is slated for salary increases for nurses so that competitive pay is offered compared with what nurses can earn in other health care institutions. There is also more money for contracted services for pschtraic evaluations of patients., services that have lagged at the state-run API.
Having a functional API is important because it is the only facility in Alaska with significant capacity for treatment of acute mental illness.
API has been cited by the federal government for shortcomings but 92 percent of the issues have been resolved and funds appropriated through the supplemental budget should address most of the remaining concerns, Sana Efird, Assistant Commissioner of the state Department of Health and Social Services, told the committee.
Of interest in the Mat-Su, on a more upbeat note, the appropriations bill also has $2 million to speed improvements on the Knik Goose Bay Road project, a reconstruction that has been underway for some time. One concern is significant ruts between Mile 1 and Mile 7 that are greater than 1.25 inches, creating a driving hazard. Plans are to do an asphalt overlay to improve the road until the construction is complete.
In another positive development, the state Division of Parks is now mostly self-supporting within the state budget and pays 61 percent of its expenses through various fees, Commissioner of Natural Resources Corri Feige told the House Finance Committee in a briefing. The division now has 22 electronic fee stations installed at state parks, which is lowering staff time and increasing revenue.
Also, the state’s public-use recreation cabins are increasingly popular. A new public use cabin at the Chena River State Recreation Area near Fairbanks opened last summer and as soon as it was featured on the division’s web site it was booked for the rest of the season, Feige told the committee.
The division also removed beetle-killed trees at the Byers Lake and South Rolly campgrounds. Byers Lake is on the Parks Highway north of Willow. South Rolly is near Willow.
Feige said she is also proud of another accomplishment this year by the state’s parks division. The Office of Boating Safety, a part of the division, taught 410 classes to teach safety, which included 106 pool sessions. The effort, called the “Kids Don’t Float” initiative, reached 15,679 Alaska youths last year. Since the program began about 200,000 Alaska young people have taken the courses.