What does the Senate’s budget-cutting plan mean to a small city in Southeast Alaska? Wrangell voiced its concerns about education, the Alaska Marine Highway and public radio to the Senate Finance Committee Friday.

Bethel Democrat and Finance Committee member Lyman Hoffman kicked off budget testimony by explaining the panel’s proposal didn’t yet include money for schools.

“We did not put the funding in for education for either one of these bills, but it is the anticipation that the Senate is looking at a 5 percent reduction for education,” said Hoffman.

Wrangell Public Schools Superintendent Patrick Mayer asked that the committee’s budget proposal mirror the House, with flat funding for education. He said the Senate cut would take $200,000 out of the budget, the equivalent of roughly two full-time teaching positions.

“Please keep education in the forefront of budget discussions and hold education funding steady. Our district costs continue to escalate,” Mayer added. “The Wrangell Public School District and others across the state are put to good use for our students. We also oppose cost shifting of state expenditures to local governments.”
The district is building the Senate’s cut into its budget. Coupled with other expected reductions and increasing expenditures, Wrangell is using its reserves to cover a $363,000 budget gap.

Teacher Brian Merritt also advocated for education funding, citing the value of investing in students.

“Ignorance is very expensive as far as our youth and people in general. So I definitely support funding education to its fullest extent,” he said.

Merritt also asked for adequate funding for the Alaska Marine Highway System. The House Finance Committee approved an additional $2.1 million for the system earlier this month. The Senate is expected to reduce the Department of Transportation’s budget by 5 percent.   

The Senate has also proposed eliminating most funding for public radio and TV. Several testified from around the state, listing local news, weather and marine forecasts as reasons to maintain funding.

Wrangell resident Jeanie Arnold focused on the Emergency Alert System. She explained it would be devastating for remote communities to lose access to its life-saving information if stations were to fail under the cut.

“In Alaska, the Emergency Alert System is tied to the public stations. Without this system in place, Alaskans lose the network and less residents know what to do in case of an earthquake, a tsunami or other natural-civil disasters,” Arnold said.

KSTK and CoastAlaska Board Member Nola Walker worried about losing radio’s public services.  

“My primary concern is that free public media is essential to a healthy democracy. In recent months, we have gone through lots of changes. I think people need news to digest the changes, to participate in democracy,” Walker explained.

State funding makes up a large portion of stations’ budgets, including KSTK. Gov. Bill Walker proposed spending $3.6 million on public radio and TV.

Friday was the last chance for public testimony before the proposal heads to the Senate floor. The Senate has also passed a bill to implement a 5.25 percent draw on Permanent Fund earnings last week. Three quarters of those funds would go to state government.

The House is considering a 4.75 percent draw, but the bill would also include an income tax.  The House Finance Committee’s budget was passed Monday.