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Lawmakers frustrated with lack of sequester-related budget information

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Posted: Thursday, July 25, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 2:26 pm, Thu Jul 25, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — Lawmakers concluded a tense three-day series of meetings in Fairbanks on the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services budget Wednesday by reviewing what they judged to be a vague report on the impacts of the federal budget sequester.

DHSS Deputy Commissioner Ree Sailors estimated the state would receive $4 million fewer federal dollars because of the sequester, but she said many impacts are unclear because the federal government has yet to complete its across-the-board cuts.

That wasn’t the answer lawmakers wanted to hear. They also complained that the presentation was delivered without an accompanying handout.

The purpose of the House Finance Subcommittee meetings is to give the lawmakers who are tasked with overseeing the department’s $2.6 billion budget a chance to become better acquainted with its many programs.

At one point, Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, threatened to end the meeting early. Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak and the full Finance committee’s co-chairman, said the department appeared to be withholding information.

“It’s very frustrating to sit here and take notes,” he said. “You sat in front of us and Juneau and gave us the same presentation. Provide us this information ... but you talk to us and talk to us and don’t give us information. You refuse to write it down, that’s very frustrating and my gut response right now is to cut the damn budget.”

The comment came before Sailors had the opportunity to spell out the known impacts of budget sequestration on her department’s programs.

Sailors said many effects are uncertain and can change, because the federal government hasn’t said where the budget sequester cuts will fall.

“They do not feel compelled to give us timely information,” she said. “We constantly work to keep these moving objects in balance, but we often won’t know what we’ll receive for the fiscal year until we’re a quarter into it. They don’t have any sense of urgency.”

Of the amount of information the department has been able to glean from the federal government, Sailors said, only fractions of federal funding are subject to reductions.

Of those, Behavioral Health Services will see a $328,000 reduction. Public Assistance will be hit with an estimated $1.6 million reduction. Public Health will be hit with a $1.2 million reduction. The Office of Children’s Services will likely see a $402,000 reduction. Senior and disability services will see a $366,000 reduction.

Whether the administration will ask the state to cover those losses has yet to be decided. The DHSS is due to submit its budget to the governor later this year.

“I cannot tell you today what exactly that is going to be,” she said. “We have to go through the exercises of getting that information, pulling it out of the federal government, comparing it to our own internal information and making a judgment on the impacts of this. Right now we just don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle.”

Austerman called the response and the wait until a budget is released in October “ridiculous.”

“We try to put our hand out to help,” he said, “and we’re sitting here today frustrated beyond belief.”

During the three-day hearing, Austerman, Neuman and Reps. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, Pete Higgins, R-Fairbanks, and Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, often criticized the department for its seemingly vague responses.

At one point, an unidentified participant in the teleconference Wednesday shouted an expletive-adorned demand that Stoltze shut up. Stoltze had accused DHSS of intentionally hiding information.

Neuman said during the meeting that he was told the comment came from a DHSS employee.

The lawmakers’ tones softened later in the meeting when Legislative Finance Division Director David Teal took the microphone.

Teal, who works for the Legislature, agreed that the gaps in information can be frustrating but said that’s a fact of the sequester. He assured the lawmakers that information would be available.

“The departments are correct in their testimony because a lot of this stuff they simply do not know,” he said. “Even though sequestration is there, but the details are not. ... There are things that can be done to ease your decisions beginning in January, some of them are difficult to do right now, but you will have that kind of information during the session. I know you would like this as early as possible.”

He said when approaching the issues of the sequester, lawmakers should simply focus on identifying what is cut and deciding whether to fill the hole with state money or cut the program.

The criticism of the department eased after that and not everyone left the three days with a sour taste in their mouth.

In closing remarks, the Office of Children’s Service Director Christy Lawton admitted that the Tuesday meeting on her program didn’t go as smoothly as hoped, but said she was dedicated to improving the program.

“Yesterday was a hard day, I won’t deny that,” she said. “I think there was a lot of mixed expectations about what was going to happen this week, and perhaps communication both ways was not as crystal clear. So we weren’t as prepared, I wasn’t prepared.”

She said, however, she thought the afternoon trips the lawmakers took to meet with front-line social workers at Fairbanks field offices, where the difficult work actually happens, was particularly illuminating for everyone in involved.

“I think yesterday afternoon was particularly helpful,” she said. “I’m sorry if you felt it wasn’t as direct in the morning, but they were able to speak candidly and illuminated a number of things on the front line.”

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 and follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.

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