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Community Perspective

Funding cut is an affront to Alaska’s legal services

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The governor’s office got it wrong when it referred to $400,000 in state funding for the Alaska Legal Services Corp. as a subsidy. Guess they had to come up with a catchy explanation of why Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed the long-standing state help for the program which provides legal assistance for low-income Alaskans.

Calling it a “subsidy” sounds like an attempt to diminish its value, tossing it into the tainted pork barrel of boondoggles that fiscal conservatives say must end.

They are right about that. Subsidies with little or no benefit to the public are wasteful. Subsidies that help private businesses or personal favorites of elected officials without a true public purpose are stinkers.

But using $400,000 in state general fund dollars — less than one-100th of 1% of the total state operating budget — to help the 54-year-old nonprofit provide free legal assistance to low-income Alaskans is not a subsidy, it’s about common decency and compassion and protecting rights.

Alaska Legal Services helps victims of domestic violence, veterans, the elderly and other low-income Alaskans who have legal problems with their utilities, housing, health care and other vital services.

The agency doesn’t help with criminal cases, only civil. And it’s limited in how much it can help with civil matters: It turned away about half its callers for lack of funds and staffing last year. Making that worse is not eliminating a subsidy; it’s creating harm.

Though the vetoed $400,000 is small part of the corporation’s overall budget, around 7%, it’s an important part. It has been a stable source of revenue over the years that the nonprofit uses to fill in around grants and other funds.

And despite the governor’s derisive use of the word subsidy, Alaska Legal Services does not sit still and wait for state checks to arrive. It raises twice as much in donations and volunteer labor each year as the vetoed $400,000. Still, the state assistance is important.

This is not a new budget-cutting choice for the governor, who two years ago vetoed 100% of state money going to Alaska Legal Services. The Legislature later restored the funding and Dunleavy accepted it — until this year.

It will not be easy for legislators to restore the $400,000 this year as they did in 2019. It requires a three-quarters majority of the combined House and Senate to override a budget veto. That’s a near-impossible task with too many lawmakers more politically committed to cutting the budget than understanding the harm of irresponsible cuts.

Another option available is attaching the $400,000 to the appropriations bill that will be required to pay this fall’s Permanent Fund dividend. Dunleavy on June 30 vetoed the Legislature’s dividend as too small, which means lawmakers must pass an appropriations bill when they meet in special session starting Aug. 2, or there will be no PFDs.

No dividends? That can’t happen in Alaska’s political world. And cutting off essential legal services shouldn’t happen.

Larry Persily has owned or managed newspapers in Wrangell, Juneau and Skagway, in addition to working for Anchorage newspapers, the Associated Press, and taking roles time in public policy work at federal, state and municipal agencies.

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