Forestry office eliminated

The Haines Division of Forestry office was apparently eliminated and the future of public radio funding and the ferry schedule hanged in the balance after legislators in the state House and Senate passed their respective versions of the state operating budget in recent weeks.

The cuts could eliminate hundreds of thousands of dollars in local payroll and services.

State House Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, addressed the cuts in a talk to the Haines Chamber of Commerce last week, delivering sobering news, including imminent cuts to education.

When Kito spoke Friday, he expressed hope the Senate might restore funding for the Haines forestry office. Kito said keeping the office open was important for economic development and that there “may be some opportunities” for getting the funding added back in.

While Kito was speaking, however, the state Senate in Juneau was passing an operating budget that left out the Haines forestry office, despite an effort by Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, to reinsert the money.

Because funding for the office was left out on both the House and Senate sides, it’s no longer up for discussion and can’t be added back in, Tally Teal, Kito’s legislative aide, said this week.

“It is not up for debate in conference committee, which means it is past time to be able to add it back in,” Teal said.

In conference, three House and three Senate representatives hash out discrepancies between the budgets passed by the two bodies.

Teal said the two Haines foresters, Roy Josephson and Greg Palmieri, will likely lose their jobs.

Though the Ketchikan and Juneau offices also were initially cut from the budget along with Haines, the Senate restored funding for three positions in Ketchikan and one in Juneau. Teal said the consensus was the Juneau office would work to make sure Haines is “appropriately covered.”

Forester Palmieri said there may be potential for a seasonal fire suppression position in Haines as half of his job is funded by money set aside to fight wildfires and that remains in the budget.

Unlike the Haines forestry office, funding for public broadcasting is still up for debate. The House cut public broadcasting by 23 percent, while the Senate cut it by 60 percent, KHNS general manager Kay Clements said in an interview this week.

The conference committee will have to find a middle ground between the two figures, Kito told the Chamber on Friday.

Clements said a 23 percent cut would “require trimming of fat we don’t have” and a 60 percent one would put the station “at serious risk of losing” $122,000 in federal public broadcast funding. The station received $133,000 from the state last year. “Those are big numbers in terms of our $400,000 budget,” Clements said.

“People I have talked to in the House are really adamant about trying to stay with the House numbers and not go for the full cut of public broadcasting,” Kito said. “It’s not gone yet. We have to work between the House and the Senate numbers.”

The Alaska Marine Highway System is looking at a $10 million cut, Kito reported. “That will have significant impacts on the ability of the department to provide services and meet their schedule. They are working really hard and trying to identify what they could do; they are trying to make sure they provide minimal service to most of the communities,” Kito said.

The ferry system is launching a new reservation system in December, which will use demand-based pricing in an effort to increase revenues, Kito said. Demand-based pricing is what companies like airlines use to fluctuate prices based on consumer demand or perceived value.

Kito also expressed dismay about the deep Senate cuts to education. The Senate pulled Base Student Allocation money, which added up to another $47 million in cuts to education. “Education is a lot worse off out of the Senate,” Kito said. School district officials this week said the Senate’s proposed cut would add up to $80,000 to a projected $282,000 deficit.

During a question-and-answer session at Kito’s talk, former Haines Borough Assembly member Norm Smith asked why the state doesn’t just tap the $54 billion permanent fund reserves to make up for revenue deficiencies. The state, which also holds $21 billion in savings in its Constitutional Budget Reserve, faces a $3.5 billion shortfall.

“If we start spending the permanent fund, then we lose our ability to have a rainy day fund,” Kito said. “The permanent fund does generate earnings every year. Those earnings are accumulating in a savings account right now called the earnings reserve, and there is available balance in the earnings reserve account.”

Regarding other ways to raise revenue, Kito broached the issue of a state income tax. Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, introduced legislation last week that would tax income received in-state at 15 percent of the person’s federal income tax payments.

In a separate interview, Kito said through his staffer that he isn’t opposed to an income tax and looks at it as a fair way for everyone to contribute.

Kito said he would not support a statewide sales tax. “I personally would avoid a statewide sales tax because it is the primary method for local governments to raise revenue, and if the state starts getting into that area then we are impeding the ability of a local government to take care of themselves,” he said.

Kito said citizens concerned about cuts can contact legislators via email.