Opinion: Now is not the time to cut essential services, programs

This year, I have assumed the duties of the Democratic leader in the Senate. Senator Johnny Ellis passed the torch to me, and taking over from such a people’s champion is humbling. I want to take a moment to bring you up to date on what’s happening in Juneau.

Last spring I wrote about oil tax reductions that had narrowly passed. I reported that as a result of that decision we had lost $4.5 billion to three of the richest corporations in the world, and I expressed my concern that this would lead to a loss of funds for vital services such as K-12 education, senior benefits and the Pioneer’s Homes.

Today, as I write this, Alaska is facing a multi-billion dollar deficit over this year and next, due to a drop in oil prices and the oil tax giveaway of last spring. Not surprisingly, the governor has announced a round of budget cuts as well as his intention to begin to draw down our savings accounts. He proposes to take over $5 billion out of savings in this year alone.

As Democrats, we believe that when times get tough, cuts to services for children and our senior citizens is not the place to start. Representative Geran Tarr and I have sponsored legislation this year that protects the Senior Benefits program by ensuring it does not sunset. Established in 2007, the Senior Benefits program pays cash benefits to Alaskan seniors with low or moderate incomes. The program faces a sunset date of June 30, 2015, and our bill would ensure that the program continues its vital support to Alaska’s seniors.

Senator Berta Gardner and Representative Les Gara are sponsoring a bill which I support to provide funds to prevent the teacher layoffs that schools from Fairbanks to Anchorage to Juneau are facing. It also requires that the state keep up with inflation in the future, so that our schools have funding they can count on. The governor also recently proposed an increase for schools, but it is so small as to be ineffective – like giving a car crash victim a band aid. Healthy schools need adequate funding, and that’s our goal.

Through my bill, Senate Bill 15, I will continue to advocate for the state to join 40 other states in offering voluntary pre-kindergarten to parents on a statewide basis. Pre-K programs have been extensively studied and provide a huge array of benefits to children – benefits that last a lifetime. Children who participate in a pre-K program have higher graduation rates, fewer placements in special education or other remedial programs, and an array of other educational benefits. Research also shows that these children are more likely to get jobs and to stay out of jail. Pre-K really is a case where spending a little money now saves the state money later through giving kids a leg up on life.

Finally, Representative Andy Josephson and Senator Bill Wielechowski are working to extend Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act to the 40,000 Alaskans who were left without health care coverage when Governor Parnell decided not to participate in this program. One hundred percent of this program’s cost is paid by the federal government for the first three years, and 90 percent of the cost after that. It is unconscionable to leave thousands of Alaskans, young and old, out in the cold when it comes to basic health care.

We will be closely watching the budget as the legislature begins its review, and will be advocating for the Pioneer’s Homes, for in-home services for seniors, and for good health care coverage for all Alaskans.

As Franklin Roosevelt once observed “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Sen. Hollis French is a Democrat representing Anchorage District J in the legislature.