Denali Commission Fighting Budget Cuts

By Libby Casey

The head of the Denali Commission says the agency hopes to fight proposed budget cuts, but will survive if they go through. 

Federal co-chair Joel Neimeyer says when he was first chosen to lead the Denali Commission last fall the White House told him it would be rooting out earmarks.

They shared with me that Obama administration was very interested in scaling back earmarks.  So they’re following through with what they wanted to do.  So what we need to do is the commission and our stakeholders need to develop a strong case statement back to the delegation, and Congress, and the President, that we add value.

The White House budget is only a proposal and needs the approval of Congress… last year Alaska’s Senators were able to push back against some cuts.

On the chopping block is all $10-million of the Commission’s health care facilities construction program, which helps pay for clinics and housing for elders throughout rural Alaska.  But Neimeyer says if that DOES go through, the commission still has funds in the bank to keep the program afloat for a while.

Although the reduction in the annual appropriation is cause for concern, I don’t see it as significant cause for concern, what I want is I want creative Alaskans giving us good ideas we can implement and work with.

Neimeyer says plans for this year include renovating a clinic in Wales, and building facilities in Venetie and Chistochina.  He says they’ll be able to usher a number of projects through their pre-construction phases, and help them become attractive to other investors, like federal agencies, the state, or private companies.

They can certainly go to other funders to try to fund the balance of the project.  And so as I’ve suggested maybe the pace of the construction would drop off, but I would suspect that many of these projects would move forward in time.

In addition to zeroing-out funds for the health care facilities construction program, the White House also proposes putting matching requirements on ALL of the Commission’s construction projects:  a 50 percent match in hub communities like Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Bethel, and a 20 percent match for so-called distressed communities.

Neimeyer says that’s manageable, since the Denali Commission has already dealt with such a formula.

If we were told to do it tomorrow that would be a problem, but we’ve got plenty of time to respond, and the fact that we’ve already been doing it in the health program, I don’t see it as too big of an issue.

Neimeyer says he’s pleased the White House has proposed holding strong the Commission’s base funding at nearly 12 million dollars.  In recent years the Commission’s overall federal funds have dwindled.  It reached its peak in 2006 with about $141-million… and was down to $61-million for the 2010 fiscal year.  But Neimeyer says that’s still far more than what the Commission started with in 1998.  He says in recent years the feds have said the state should show more backing for the Commission.  And Neimeyer says Governor Sean Parnell has included 3 million dollars in the Capital Budget for a general-use Partnership Grant.

To me that’s very exciting, because in past state has provided for specific line items.  Let’s say a collaboration on some dock or road.  This is first time in which a sum of money has been specified by the governor or the legislature that says it’ll go to Commission, and Commission process will decide how to be utilized.

Neimeyer is only in his second month as head of the Denali Commission, but he worked for it during its early years.  He supports efforts by Alaska’s Senators to create a single, standard annual appropriation for the Commission, which would take some of the unpredictability out of its funding.


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