Representative Paul Seaton of Homer is back from Juneau after a 118-day legislative session. He joined Ken Alper, the tax division director for the state Department of Revenue, at the Homer Chamber of Commerce Tuesday to discuss the state budget and the end of the session.
The Legislature voted for the first time in history to draw from Permanent Fund earnings to pay for government operations. The legislation allows lawmakers to draw 5.25 percent from the earnings reserve, but it didn’t specify how much would go to state government and PFDs.
Seaton said the House majority was initially hesitant to support Senate Bill 26.
“We had been reluctant because SB 26 doesn't solve all the problems, the fiscal problem,” he said. “We had proposed in the first year, 2017, a complete fiscal plan that would be comprehensive and sustainable. The Senate just really couldn't get there; all they wanted to do was take money out of our savings accounts and that’s what basically SB 26 did.”
He said taking money from Permanent Fund earnings is only part of the solution to solving Alaska’s budget crisis, and he believes the Legislature needs to find other ways to diversify revenue.
But Seaton said passing SB 26 made it easier to forward fund education, something lawmakers also approved during the session.
That bill allows legislators to tackle education funding earlier rather than waiting to finalize funding along with the state’s operating budget late in the session.
“Before there would be the teacher layoffs, the pink slips going out to all the non-tenured teachers and any tenured teachers," he said. “So that was a real success. We didn't have all the teacher layoffs going out.”
Seaton said the Legislature was also able to fund a portion of the state’s Medicaid program through the end of the fiscal year, which is set to run out of money before July 1. But he was disappointed that the Legislature could not fully fund the program.
“Instead of the 48 [million] it was $20 million less than that so we paid $28 million,” he said. “Unfortunately it hadn't been communicated to us by the department that the actual bill wasn't $48 million. It was going to be somewhat more than that. So there's a big hit on unpaid Medicaid that's coming to the hospital, dentists and the Center, all those providers of services.”
Southern Kenai Peninsula residents also asked about everything from Medicaid and high drug costs to crime. But some also questioned whether Seaton planned to run in the Republican primary this summer. Representative Seaton said he has not yet decided.
The state Republican party tried to prevent Seaton and two other Republican lawmakers from running in Republican primaries in late 2017. Party leaders say he betrayed the party after joining the bipartisan House majority coalition in 2016, which took control away from Republicans in the House.
The Republican Party argued that a court ruling allowing independent candidates to run in Democratic primaries allowed it to preclude candidates from its primary elections.