Jennifer Robinson, of the Sitka Chamber of Commerce and School Board, testified before the Senate Finance Committee along with School Board President Lon Garrison. (Photo courtesy of Gavel to Gavel)

School Board President Lon Garrison testified before the Senate Finance Committee, along with School Board member, and Chamber of Commerce director, Jennifer Robinson. (Photo courtesy of Gavel to Gavel)

The Senate Finance Committee is piecing together its take on the state operating budget, in the face of a $3.5-billion deficit. This week, the committee is taking testimony from the public on its work so far.

On Monday night (3-30-15), it was Sitka’s turn, as lawmakers heard from communities throughout Southeast and Coastal Alaska. Residents urged  legislators to roll back proposed cuts to K-12 education, the Alaska Marine Highway System, domestic violence prevention, and public broadcasting.

Sitka School Board members Lon Garrison and Jennifer Robinson traveled to Juneau to testify in person. Garrison said he was there to “implore” lawmakers to restore $32-million in one-time school funding promised during the last legislative session.

“For Sitka, that amounts to just over $362,000 dollars, or 3.5 teachers in our district,” Garrison told the committee. “The Sitka School District is currently facing an unprecedented $2.7-million shortfall out of a $20-million budget.”

“We are working to find ways to fill that gap,” he said, but “unfortunately with the magnitude of the cuts currently proposed, we will see higher class sizes, loss of programs, and the closure of facilities such as our swimming pool and our  performing arts center,  and the loss of programs such as our community schools program.”

Meanwhile, more than a dozen Sitkans gathered in the Legislative Information Office in town and waited through nearly two hours of testimony for their chance to speak.

Vicki D’Amico, the Executive Director of Sitkans Against Family Violence, asked the Senate to reinstate $1.5-million in domestic violence prevention programs.

D’Amico said that in more than 25 years of working at the women’s shelter, she never had much hope that the number of victims would decline, until she saw the prevention programs that have begun in Sitka in recent years.

“We continue to seek alternative sources of funding, and we won’t need funding indefinitely, as we will for shelters and response services if nothing is done to reduce victims’ numbers,” D’Amico said. “We in Sitka are right now on the cusp of change…our prevention plan is a well-oiled machine. A train, if you will, that prevention funds designed and built. It’s a moving train, very close to its destination. Pulling the funds now is the equivalent of derailing this train.”

Several Sitkans also spoke against a proposed 100% cut to statewide funding for public broadcasting.

Speakers pointed out that the cut would dismantle the statewide satellite network, leave some rural communities with no radio or TV signal, and interrupt emergency alert systems. It would also devastate local stations.

KCAW, for instance, receives $137,000 in state funding out of an annual budget of $668,000.

Rich McClear, a former general manager of KCAW, added that many stations would also lose their federal funding, which requires a state match. (In KCAW’s case, that’s an additional $10,000.) He recalled the arguments made by former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens when public broadcasting was up for debate in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s.

“With reporters in so many local stations, public broadcasting is the only institution that can provide coverage of the whole state, rural and urban,” McClear said. “It [was] essential then, it’s essential now. It knits our state together. And heaven knows, we need to be together [now] more than ever before, with this fiscal crisis.”

The Senate Finance Committee is working on the state operating budget this week. The budget will then go to the full Senate for approval. The state House passed its version of the budget earlier this month.