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Alaska’s budget crisis likely to take a bite out of food safety unit

AKfish_406x250Alaska’s House Finance Subcommittee, charged with reviewing next year’s budget for the Department of Environmental Conservation, is suggesting the Food Safety & Sanitation Program be cut for the second consecutive year.

Alaska is not like any of the lower 48 states. It is preparing for a second year of a budget crisis caused by depressed oil prices. Alaskan lawmakers this week were giving attention to budget cuts and protecting the state’s $50 billion permanent fund from being tapped too hard for state operations.

The Food Safety & Sanitation Program in the Division of Environmental Health houses the state’s food safety infrastructure. It has already endured $850,000 in cuts, and now the subcommittee working on the 2017 has proposed a second reduction of $357,100.

The House Finance Committee subcommittees spent this week scrubbing the budget to make any and all possible cuts. The next step for the committee is to write its own state operating budget, a task co-chair Steve Thompson, R-Dist. 2, hopes to complete by March 9.

Legislative observers say the strong support for cutting the food safety unit’s budget to $1.2 million below the levels it received before oil prices plunged shows how seriously lawmakers view the budget crisis. The Food Safety & Sanitation unit mostly enforces statutory responsibilities, including those covering food, seafood and shellfish.

The unit also protects public health at public facilities, including hotels and motels, pools and spas, and hair and body art establishments. State government employees do not want to come to the attention of legislative budget reviewers and have asked not to be named.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, who was elected as an Independent, imposed a hiring freeze on state government early this year. The Alaska State Patrol, whose officers also double as game wardens, was exempted from the freeze, as were “mission critical” openings at state agencies.

When prices were higher, Alaska could tap oil revenues to provide about 90 percent of the state’s operating budget. The collapse of oil prices, opened a $3.5 billion hole in the state’s budget.

Further complicating things is that for 40 years, Alaska’s permanent fund actually has paid out dividends to every man, woman, and child in the state; more than $2,000 each just a year ago. Now the dividends are just part of the budget soup.

 

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