Special Foster’s Report
The following is a special report and update from House Distric 39 Representative Neal Foster in regards to the Governor's recent budget vetoes and the failed override vote:
The fight to reclaim our state and protect rural interests is far from over.
On Wednesday, July 10 both the House and Senate voted to override Governor Dunleavy's vetoes. His vetoes totaled $444 million. To successfully override the vetoes required a 3/4 vote. There are 60 legislators, so that meant we needed 45 votes. The vote failed on a 37-1 vote. Missing were 22 legislators who support the Governor's vetoes and were in Wasilla. I advocated that we go to Wasilla the next day for a re-vote, but there was not enough support.
As the House Chairman of the State's Operating Budget, I was instructed by our majority to get a new appropriations bill through the Finance Committee. This new bill will restore all funding of all vetoed items.
Could this bill be vetoed again by the Governor? Yes. But there has been an intense public outcry to reverse the vetoes. Pressure is mounting in ways that were unexpected. The business community has come out overwhelmingly against the Governor's cuts. Recall efforts are being started to oust legislators in moderate districts. And public efforts have not let up despite the 5-day window to override ending on Friday, July 12.
The goal of taking a second bite at the apple is to continue to work with the public to win over those legislators who are on the fence.
What's at stake? For our district I have deep concerns over many of the vetoes. The loss of senior benefits hurts the elderly who are at the very bottom of the income scale. A cab driver told me he took several folks to the local Credit Union on July 1. It was there they found out their checks were cut off. That was money they intended to use to help pay for rent and food.
To add insult to injury, the Governor made vetoes to senior benefits and many other programs that help the most vulnerable. And yet his fiscal plan holds harmless multibillion-dollar oil companies.
The Governor's vetoes include a cut of $130 million to the University system. The entire campus in Anchorage could be shut down, and that still does not add up to $130 million. Thousands of jobs will be lost across the state. Students are already changing their minds about attending the University of Alaska and its satellite campuses in favor of schools in the Lower 48. Obviously, this could have immediate impacts on our Northwest Campus.
All funding for the Nome Youth Facility was eliminated. The facility takes in youth from more than Nome and more than the Bering Strait region. Youth from all over Western Alaska are brought there so they can be kept close to their support groups and in a more culturally restorative environment. There is a lot of concern that sending "soft offenders" to urban detention centers will turn them into "hardened offenders" where they will be exposed to gangs and more serious criminal elements.
The Governor is moving all funds from both the "Power-Cost-Equalization Fund" (PCE) and the "Higher Education Performance Scholarship Fund" into a fund that requires a 3/4 vote to access. This means that no PCE assistance will be made to 84,000 rural Alaskans. Every household in rural Alaska that must pay an electric bill will feel this. In Nome the subsidy averages $800 per household per year. In Brevig Mission that number is $2,500. And no scholarships will be paid to 12,000 students across the state from the higher education fund.
I could go on and on about what was cut. Village Public Safety Officers. Homeless shelters. Public broadcasting. Transportation. Courts. Medicaid. The Arts. Schools. Community Assistance. Headstart and Pre-Kindergarten. Alaska Legal Services. And a medical program that helps to get health professionals into rural Alaska.
Rural Alaska has spoken loud and clear that they oppose the vetoes. Our district has mobilized in a way that I've never seen in the 10 years that I have served in the legislature. I have received a great deal of emails. I've spoken to folks at the post office, grocery stores, and while walking through the 4th of July crowds. It's been eye opening to see folks who have never been involved politically reach out to me and say: "Override the vetoes."
We have the support of the business community who are fearful that the vetoes will send us into a deeper recession than the one we were just starting to come out of. We have the support of urban areas that have the same concerns we do whether it be defunding homeless shelters or education or Medicaid. And we have the support of the people.
In the most recent poll, the Governor's approval rating was a mere 9 percent in rural Alaska. It was highest in the Mat-Su at 42 percent (which is still less than half). In Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Kenai that number hovers in the 30 percent range. And in Juneau it is 16 percent.
In all, the Governor made 182 vetoes. My goal is to reverse those. For those who want cuts, we passed a budget with nearly $200 million in cuts. These were carefully considered cuts. And those are in addition to having reduced the budget from $7.8 billion in FY13 to $4.6 billion this year. That is a 41 percent cut.
These cuts were made in a step-down approach. We call this a “glide-path”. But what we’re seeing with these vetoes is akin to going over a cliff. The Governor’s $444 million cut is in addition to the $200 million cut that we adopted. Combining the two comes out to a total cut of $644 million in one year. The public has very clearly spoken and said that this is too much too soon.
I will fire up the House Finance Committee on Monday, July 15. The plan is to spend the week pushing the new appropriations bill through committee and on to the floor. We are hopeful that we can win over 8 legislators for another override vote or reach a compromise with the Governor.
So, I'll end where I started: The fight to reclaim our state and protect rural interests is far from over.