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With Arduin out, Alaska’s budget process is about to change

was written by Andrew Kitchenman, Alaska Public Media & KTOO – Juneau , 2019-09-21 02:29:15

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Sen. Natasha Von Imhof, R-Anchorage, questions a presenter during a Senate Finance meeting, Jan. 16, 2019. Von Imhof was among the lawmakers encouraged by the announcement this week that commissioners would play a more prominent role in the budget process. Ben Stevens, chief of staff to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, made the announcement. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration plans to have commissioners play a more prominent role in the budget process this year.

Legislators are praising the Dunleavy administration’s plan. They’ve noted the department heads were closer to the policy implications of budget cuts than former budget director Donna Arduin.

Lawmakers also said they’re looking forward to learning what Dunleavy’s plans are for the budget.

Commissioners and their staffs have traditionally answered questions from legislators during the budget process. But the administration put Arduin and the Office of Management and Budget and at the center of the process this year, in some cases having OMB staff answer questions that commissioners would have in the past.

Senate Finance co-chair Natasha von Imhof, an Anchorage Republican, was among the lawmakers who asked for more access to the commissioners.

“We felt that the commissioners had a more holistic approach to their departments,” von Imhof said. “Not only did they have the fiscal issues in mind, but I think they had the policy issues.”

So von Imhof was encouraged when Dunleavy chief of staff Ben Stevens said on Monday that commissioners would play a more prominent role in the budget.

Stevens, in announcing that Arduin is no longer the budget director, said that the administration’s goal is for commissioners to be able to understand and defend their budgets.

“We now have 13 experienced commissioners that understand their budgets,” he said. “The governor and the commissioners and all of us involved in the budget process want to have input into the development of these budgets.”

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski, a Senate Finance Committee member, also was encouraged by the announcement.

“It’s going to result in commissioners participating,” she said. “And they’re the ones who really know their departments and divisions and what’s going on much, much better than some OMB director who has lived in Alaska for a couple months.”

Wielechowski said it was frustrating hearing Arduin’s answers to budget questions, when senators wanted to know more about what proposed cuts would mean.

“She would make these proposals and have no analysis at all on the impacts to Alaskans, the ramifications to various people across Alaska,” he said. “She just had no idea what was happening. And so by getting the commissioners more involved, you will have more input, you will have a better understanding, and it will help us pass better policy.”

North Pole Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson supports making deeper cuts to the budget. She was co-chair of the House Finance Committee before she left the majority caucus. She said it was difficult to justify cuts when the administration didn’t back them up with policy analysis — she said commissioners will be in a better position to provide that.

“There needed to be a plan,” she said. “And I think that’s what was missing this entire time. If we’re going to reduce an area by, let’s say, from four people to two people — well, if you continue to have all the same regulations and all the same mandates that four people had to take care of, how can two people do that?”

Wilson credited Arduin with providing an outline of what it will take to bring what the state spends in line with the money it brings in.

“What Miss Arduin was able to show is that, for us to get to a sustainable budget, here’s pretty much what it’s going to have to look like, almost like shock therapy,” she said.

Ultimately, lawmakers said that while having more involvement from commissioners will be important, they want to know the direction the governor gives them.

For her part, von Imhof said the biggest factor will be whether Dunleavy continues to propose deep cuts in order to provide full permanent fund dividends under a 1982 state law.

“I will be curious to see what the governor’s approach is come this December: whether he is going to continue with hundreds of millions (of dollars) of reductions across the board and hold the dividend harmless,” she said.

The deadline for Dunleavy to announce next year’s budget proposal is Dec. 15.

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High on the list of suggested sites for anyone exploring Alaska includes

Denali National Park and Preserve. First developed to save wildlife, the vistas are nonetheless amazing. Denali consists of 160 miles of the Alaska Range and dominating this sky line is North America’s largest peak; 20,320 foot Mount McKinley simply one of the most great views in Alaska, if not the world. But it’s not only the mountain that makes Denali National Park a unique place. The park is the place to find 37 species of mammals, including lynx, marmots and Dall sheep, to foxes and snowshoe hares, and one hundred thirty different bird species have been seen here, which includes the extraordinary golden eagle. The majority of visitors, however, want to see four animals in particular: moose, caribou, wolf and everyone’s popular: the grizzly, bear. Denali, unlike most wilderness areas in the country, it’s not necessary to be a backpacker to see this kind of wildlife, they can be seen right next to the famous Denali Park road. Not surprisingly then, visitors arrive here in droves; the park is a well-known place, attracting 432,000 visitors each year. Over time the National Park Service (NPS) has evolved exceptional visitor-management methods, including shutting its only road to the majority of vehicles. Because of this Denali National Park is still the awesome wilderness it was two decades ago. The entry has evolved, however the park itself hasn’t, and any brown bear meandering on a tundra ridge still provide the same quiet delight as when the park first opened up in 1917. Despite the fact that generations of Athabascans had wandered through what is these days the park, the first permanent settlement was started in 1905, when a gold miners’ rush established the town of Kantishna. A year later, naturalist and hunter Charles Sheldon was taken aback by the beauty of the land and horrified at the careless abandon of the miners and big-game hunters. Sheldon returned in 1907 and explored the region along with guide Harry Karstens in an effort to set up boundaries for a proposed national park. Sheldon was successful and the area was organized as Mount McKinley National Park in 1917 with Karstens serving as the park’s first superintendent. As a result of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the park was enlarged to more than 6 million acres and renamed Denali National Park and Preserve. Denali now comprises an area slightly bigger than the state of Massachusetts and is generally ranked as one of Alaska’s top sight-seeing opportunities.

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