Thursday, February 26, 2015

Budget proposal could ground some Public Safety aircraft

JUNEAU — A budget proposal laid out Thursday could wind up grounding two search and rescue helicopters and a plane capable of prisoner and personnel transports.

A House subcommittee denied a $2.4 million request by the Department of Public Safety for an expanded aircraft section, a request that followed an audit. It called for adding eight new employees, including maintenance workers and pilots.

The panel decided that given the state's budget situation, adding that many new workers doesn't make sense. It rejected a proposed amendment from Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, that would have added a portion of the request.

The crash in oil prices has exacerbated the state's budget deficit, projected to be in the billions of dollars this year and next. Gov. Bill Walker's administration and lawmakers are looking at cuts in a bid to downsize government, mindful of a need to try to make the state's reserves stretch. The state plans to dip into savings to help get by.

The subcommittee's recommendation will be considered as the House Finance Committee crafts its version of the operating budget. Whatever might pass the House still would have to be considered by the state Senate.

The potential grounding of the aircraft would be due to a lack of funding for trained and certified maintenance personnel, either on staff or on contracts, Kelly Howell, director of the department's Division of Administrative Services, said by email.

In an interview, Public Safety Commissioner Gary Folger said that if the money isn't added, the department likely would have to rely more on its search and rescue partners. He told the subcommittee that the National Guard often responds when it is dark or the weather is poor and an outside company helps pick up some slack.

Folger left open the possibility that smaller department helicopters not intended for search and rescue, could be used, depending on the circumstances.

The department has another King Air plane for transports that Folger said is a more capable aircraft, but it is also limited in where it can go by its landing gear, he said.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, chair of the subcommittee handling the department's budget, said he's not thrilled about some of the proposed actions. But he said there also isn't much choice, given the large shortfall.

House subcommittees have been closing out their work this week. Here are some other highlights:

—On Tuesday evening, the subcommittee handling the University of Alaska system budget proposed cutting $26.5 million more than Walker proposed. If it stands, the cut would be significant, impacting people and programs, university system spokeswoman Carla Beam said Thursday. It is safe to say that would include sports teams, she said, with travel budgets for Anchorage and Fairbanks among the cuts.

—A subcommittee on the Legislature's budget proposed cutting about $920,000 from the current year during a brief meeting Thursday morning.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, called it a first step in the process. While the cut may not seem like much now, negotiations are under way dealing with issues such as staff and salaries, he told reporters at the House majority's regular news conference.


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