Full impact of budget cuts remains to be seen
August 1, 2019
On June 28, Governor Dunleavy shocked the state by cutting $440 million from the legislature’s proposed operating budget for FY20, a 182 line item veto that devastated funding for crucial social services and programs such as the Senior Benefits Program, the Homeless Assistance Program, Medicaid and Dental Services, a host of Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery grants in addition to cutting 40% of funding for the University of Alaska system.
Starting July 1, funds promised to Senior Benefits beneficiaries disappeared without warning and public outrage regarding cuts to other important services spurred a second special legislative session calling for a vote to override the governor’s veto. In a largely political maneuvering that changed the location of the special legislative session from Juneau to Wasilla, a divided legislature failed to procure a three-fourths majority needed to pass an override, despite emphatic and impassioned speeches by legislators in favor of a full override.
As of Senior Voice press time, legislators are working with the governor, promoting compromise to pass an operating budget, mental health budget and capital budget while deciding on a final PFD amount before the conclusion of the special session at the end of July.
Denise Daniello, executive director of the Alaska Commission on Aging (ACoA), highlights the bright side of this particular legislative session.
“I have lived in Alaska since 1976, and of all the legislative sessions I remember, this is the one that has encouraged people to pay attention and get involved,” said Daniello. “They’re taking action, regardless of opinion, and exercising their right to take part in the government. That’s a real positive thing coming out of this session.”
Gordon Glaser, an ACoA commissioner from Anchorage, champions tact and understanding when voicing concerns to constituents, legislators and other community members.
“We would encourage people to be civil,” said Glaser. “We can disagree, but we can respect each other’s viewpoints. We have little to gain and much to lose if we break down the civility when talking to each other.”
In the midst of the budget cuts, the commission expresses concern for those impacted.
“Everybody is in difficulty,” Glaser said, “but those more dependent on government support will face more of an immediate problem. Going forward, the commission wants a budget that is fiscally responsible and will allow older Alaskans to live productive lives. That includes having access to basic nutrition, medical needs met and a roof over their heads.”
David Blacketer, an ACoA commissioner from Kodiak, is wary of finding existing programs that could assist those that no longer receive funds through Senior Benefits.
“It’s pretty hard to replace,” said Blacketer. “You can’t use other programs to pay for groceries or oil the way that Senior Benefits would allow.”
Daniello notes that there are other services that have not been jeopardized by the cuts.
“There have been no cuts to senior services funded by grant funds including congregate meals, adult day services and care coordination,” said Daniello. “Other social services that are protected include the Division of Public Assistance, SNAP, Heating Assistance and the Food Bank. People will still be receiving the PFD. Senior centers should also step up as people will be coming to them for lunch or home delivered meals.”
The commission worries that future projections have not been considered enough during budgeting deliberations.
“It’s similar to driving without headlights on,” said Glaser. “The cuts are first, and then the impact is second. The reality is that the Food Banks are limited and not capable of expansion. This is the same for many programs. What will be the true cost of this? Is it that three months down the line people are going to say this is out of control? We need to turn on the headlights instead of driving blindly into a fiscal and emotional nightmare.”
“Alaska has the highest long term care costs, and Senior Benefits and other supportive services help support independent living,” added Daniello. “If you gut Senior Benefits, will that increase the cost demand for other services? If someone goes to an assisted living home, someone has to pay for that.”
Regardless of the pending outcome, the commission urges Alaskans to stay involved.
“The beauty and weakness of this is that nothing is permanent,” added Glaser. “You can be personally involved in Alaskan politics. Real people are being affected. This isn’t some abstract, distant argument. These are our neighbors we’re talking about.”