JUNEAU — The House Finance Committee will take budget testimony from the public in a series of events across the state, Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, announced Thursday.
The plan is unprecedented: Members of the finance committee, traveling in small groups, will convene field hearings across the state in order to hear Alaskans’ opinions about the state operating budget proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy and an alternative proposal being formulated by members of the committee.
The committee’s budget subcommittees are expected to finish their work on that alternative next week, confirmed committee vice chair Rep. Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage, and the field hearings could begin the following weekend.
A schedule of the hearings is not yet available but should be released in the next few days, Edgmon said.
“These meetings will take place outside of Juneau, predominantly in the bigger communities: Fairbanks, (Matanuska-Susitna Borough), Anchorage, Kenai,” he said.
The meetings will finish before the end of the month, he said.
“I think it’s a good idea. I think it’s always good when we can get out to constituents around the state and hear what they have to say,” said Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan and a member of the finance committee.
Johnston said, “Sometimes we can feel pretty insular down here, and this is changing times. It’s time for community engagement.”
The finance committee typically takes testimony by telephone and from the few people who travel to Juneau to deliver their thoughts in person. Members of the committee said the hearings will allow them to receive testimony from a broader swath of the state.
Not everyone is pleased with the idea. House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, criticized the potential cost.
“I thought we were in a fiscal crisis,” he said.
No cost estimate for the hearings has been provided, but funding is expected to come from the Legislature’s budget.
Is the spending worth it?
“Yes. I had to think about it for a while, but it is,” Johnston said.
To limit costs, Edgmon said, the hearings will involve three to four members of the finance committee, and not all of the state’s smaller communities will host a hearing.
The House Finance Committee isn’t the only group planning to talk about the budget. Dunleavy told reporters earlier this month that he intends to host meetings across the state about the budget, and the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce announced this week that it will host the governor and others for a one-hour conversation starting at 8 a.m. March 28.
The governor is expected to advocate his ideas for cutting the state’s budget in order to balance income with expenses while paying a statutory Permanent Fund dividend without higher taxes or spending from the Constitutional Budget Reserve.
The House’s budget plan, still in development, is expected to provide more state services at the cost of a lower dividend. Edgmon confirmed Thursday that the House’s budget will also stay within the governor’s limits: no spending from savings or excess spending from the Permanent Fund.
Pruitt said he thinks the coalition House majority will get “nothing” out of the hearings.
“I think that they’re nervous hearing that the governor’s going to start talking in public. This is a way to try to mitigate that,” he said.
Edgmon said he hopes members of the House’s Republican minority will participate in the hearings.
“We all have a stake in this, and in the end, we’re all going to be voting on the budget one way or the other, and we’re all going to be taking ownership of making these difficult decisions,” he said.