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Alaska and Yukon Headlines
With oil revenues expected to decline, Gov. Sean Parnell wants to cut the state’s budget by $1 billion next year and then use another billion in savings to balance the rest. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.
If Gov. Sean Parnell had one big talking point while unveiling his budget proposal, this was it:
PARNELL: “Lower revenue means we tighten our belts now.” “We need to tighten our belts on expenses.” “Nobody’s denying that we are tightening our belts.”
At an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce luncheon and then again with reporters, Parnell emphasized the need to pull back on state spending. At $12.4 billion, his budget for the 2015 fiscal year is smaller than the $13.4 billion one currently in place.
Appropriations from the state’s unrestricted general fund — the pot of money that lawmakers are free to appropriate without any strings attached — amount to $5.6 billion. The next biggest funding source is the federal government, which is contributing $3.1 billion to Alaska’s government.
Parnell’s plan keeps agency operations mostly flat at $7.6 billion, and Parnell announced that 150 state jobs were being cut to save money.
The proposal shrinks the capital budget by a third, with the state substantially cutting back its contribution. Of the $1.7 billion allocated for infrastructure, just $430 million is coming from Alaska’s unrestricted general fund. The federal government is footing most of the difference.
There’s also less money for megaprojects. This past year, the Susitna-Watana Hydro Project got nearly $100 million. Now, Parnell’s asking for $10 million. The funding request for the Knik Arm Bridge project has also been halved to $5 million.
Even with the cuts, the state faces a billion-dollar deficit under the proposal. That money would have to come out of the state’s $17 billion rainy day fund. Under the budget that was enacted for this fiscal year, that savings account is already expected to take a $2 billion hit.
The biggest item in the budget isn’t a project at all. It’s a $3 billion transfer from the state’s budget reserves that would be used to help pay off the state’s unfunded pension liabilities. Parnell says it’s a bipartisan goal which should keep Alaska’s future debt under control.
“It would be akin to Congress and the President making the Social Security sustainable over time,” Parnell told reporters on Thursday afternoon. “From a state standpoint, this is about as significant as it gets to
address the single largest cost driver of our operating budget.”
There is a chance that Parnell’s budget proposal could grow after the Legislature gets a chance to review the document. Parnell expects them to put in some of their own capital projects and have different priorities when it comes to state agencies. He says he wants them to show restraint, but he hasn’t named a hard number for a spending cap.
“I wanted to leave room for legislators,” said Parnell. “I wanted to lower the band of spending again, given lower revenues. Every department was asked to produce savings in line with that and with the proportion of general fund dollars had in their budget.”
Legislators will get their crack at the document when they reconvene in Juneau on January 21.
School districts currently manage their own health insurance plans. They pick their own providers, they decide how much of the premium they want to cover, and their employees can bargain for better benefits. But now, a senator from the Mat-Su Borough is pushing for the state to take over management of school health plans, and a report commissioned by the Legislature backs that proposal up as a way of saving money. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.
Alaska’s school districts spend a quarter billion dollars just on employee health care. It’s a big number that’s only expected to rise, and there isn’t one obvious solution to keeping costs down. But a consulting group hired by the Alaska Legislature thinks it has a few ideas, and all of them involve putting every one of the state’s school employees into the same insurance pool.
Malinda Riley with the Hay Group presented to the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.
“You’re saying that all of employees will go to this network, and as a result achieve better discounts because of the volume of employees that would be utilizing those providers,” Riley told legislators.
The Legislature contracted with the Hay Group to find out what might happen if they passed a bill putting the state in charge of managing health plans for Alaska’s 16,000 school employees — and their dependents. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican senator from the Valley, introduced the legislation this past spring.
The Hay Group surveyed all the state’s school districts, and they interviewed the trust and the insurance companies that currently handle school health plans. Their conclusion is that districts could save up to $34 million every year if the state acted like a broker for schools, without putting them in the state’s existing AlaskaCare employee health program.
“It maximizes the savings through a centrally managed program, so you’re getting that low-hanging fruit of leveraging your size to get the best contracting,” said Riley. “But what it also does is it helps to minimize some employee disruption when it comes to plan design.”
The Hay Group does see some downsides to that arrangement, though. Districts lose the ability to pick and administer their health plans. A change like this would also affect contract negotiations for teachers.
Ron Fuhrer is the president of the National Education Association’s Alaska affiliate, and he thinks the bill would take power away from unionized employees.
“The way it’s written, it’s going to strip the right of education employees to negotiate their health plan benefits and costs,” said Fuhrer in a phone interview. “Under current Alaska statutes, health benefits is a mandatory item of bargaining.”
The NEA manages plans for about a third of the state’s school employees through the Public Education Health Trust. Chief Financial Officer Rhonda Kitter says that on top of their concerns about the bill, they also have questions about the Hay Group report. She’s skeptical that districts would be able to achieve the savings projected in the report, and she says the study doesn’t factor in the $100 million in startup costs the state would need for a takeover.
“We too are concerned with the medical inflation in Alaska, but strongly feel private enterprise is more efficient and more cost effective than government interference with health insurance, and is more nimble in responding to cost savings opportunities,” says Kitter.
Lawmakers will continue their review of the bill when the Legislature reconvenes in January. The Finance Committee has a continuing $350,000 contract with the Hay Group, and about $200,000 has been spent on their study so far.
In the past couple of weeks, my chicken house looks like several chickens have spontaneously combusted… it’s a cloud of feathers. But every chicken is, luckily, accounted for.
It’s just my Easter-egger going through a late-season molt. Though I know a change in the photoperiod can trigger molt – and most definitely our near-complete absence of light in the winter qualifies – I am always bemused when a chicken starts going nude in the middle of the coldest time to do so. It reminds me of when I used to run dogs, and some of my team would blow their coats in January. You just stand there among the fur piles (or in this case, feathers) and think: “Really? What are you thinking?”
Despite the coop being a chilly 40 degrees at this time of year, Cinnamon doesn’t seem to be bothered by it; she’s had no problems with frost bite, eats heartily and is now growing out a new wardrobe.
It is my (admittedly) unscientific observation that Americanas and Easter-eggers seem to go through a more thorough all-over body molt than do some other breeds. I don’t often have Americanas in my flock – most of my birds are Rocks, Wynadottes, Orpingtons, Cochins and Langshans. They seem to take their molting less seriously, molting more in rotating patches than undergoing a near total de-feathering.
I often get questions from poultry newbies experiencing the first molts of their new flock. A full-on molt (such as the one pictured at the top) often alarms a new flock owner – who may assume that that their chickens have some sort of parasite or disease that is causing such severe feather loss. While parasites can be a cause of patchy feather loss, there are two things to keep in mind when confronted with birds that seemingly overnight, have transformed from fluffy handsome henny-penny chickens to bald, goose-pimpled, scrawny things.
First, do inspect your birds. If parasites like lice or mites are to blame, you will be able to see them scurrying around on the skin, and/or your chickens will be picking and scratching. Second, if you haven’t been touring coops or been around other flocks, and your birds haven’t been troubled with external parasites, it is not very likely that your previously healthy and pest-free flock will suddenly become infested, especially in an Alaskan winter.
Keep an eye out for new feather emergence to seal the deal that it is a molt they are experiencing. New feather growth first looks like the chicken’s skin has been peppered with buckshot, but very quickly you will be able to see the feather shafts, at which point your chicken will look a bit porcupine-esque. Usually you will see feathers in all stages of development, as modeled by Wah the Langshan.