Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, speaks on Monday, March 27, 2023, in favor of the fast-track supplemental budget bill on the floor of the Senate. The bill passed the Senate unanimously and advances to the desk of Gov. Mike Dunleavy. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
The Alaska Legislature has passed a fast-track budget bill intended to immediately address problems with the state’s food-aid program for poor Alaskans and other immediate concerns.
House Bill 79, proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, is intended to address the food-aid problem. It transfers $3.1 million from the state’s Medicaid program to the Division of Public Assistance, which oversees the program. It also allows the division to use $3.7 million in additional federal funding available for food aid.
The Alaska Senate voted 20-0 on Monday to approve the bill, which now goes to Dunleavy’s desk. The House approved the bill 38-1 on March 22.
The food-aid program, commonly referred to as food stamps and formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is months behind on distributing aid to thousands of Alaskans. About one in eight state residents receive help from the program, and a handful have sued the state, alleging mismanagement. That case is now in federal court.
Food banks have reported high demand, and three people from one rural village were hospitalized for malnutrition, a city administrator told the Anchorage Daily News in February.
Shirley Young, director of communications for the Alaska Department of Health, said the new funding will pay for 30 additional long-term temporary workers, covers overtime for supervisors and supports a contract for 75 additional staff.
The bill also contains $4.7 million in additional immediate funding for the Office of Public Advocacy and the Public Defender Agency, two organizations that provide criminal defense attorneys to poor Alaskans.
Earlier this year, the Public Defender Agency warned that staffing shortages meant it would soon be unable to defend people accused of serious felonies in Nome and Bethel. That raised constitutional concerns because the Alaska Constitution requires that the state provide legal defense to Alaskans who cannot afford it.
A sharply lower state revenue forecast, released last week, required lawmakers to include additional language in the bill that allows the state treasury to use money from the Constitutional Budget Reserve, a $2.3 billion savings account, to cover a hole in the state budget created by low oil prices.
As much as $365 million could be needed to pay for state operations through June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
“We know we are underwater,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka and co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee.
“We’re pretty confident that’s going to carry us through the end of the year,” he said of Monday’s vote.
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