To Save Money, Alaska Legislature Cuts Research Staff

A 40 percent cut to the state's Legislative Research Services comes at a time when staff says they expect research requests to increase.

By Pat Forgey

Alaska legislators struggling with difficult decisions on budget cuts next session will have less help available from their non-partisan research staff, due to cuts the Legislature itself made quietly during the last session.

A 40 percent cut to Legislative Research Services comes at a time when manager Chuck Burnham said he expects research requests to increase. "As I told those of us who are fortunate enough to be left here, we're basically all just going to have to work a lot harder," Burnham said.

Last year the research staff responded to more than 500 requests, producing reports of varying levels of complexity, as well as answering additional phone or email questions that didn't require full reports, he said.

Since the beginning of the fiscal year in July, the trimmed-down agency has already had more research requests than this time last year, Burnham said.

"I don't expect we'll get fewer questions," he said. "We've had 50 requests since July 1, and this is supposed to be our slow period." Burnham said he understands why cuts had to be made.

"We're far from the only state agency that's trying to do the same amount of work with fewer people," he said.

But Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, didn't like where the Legislature was choosing to cut, and said the expert research assistance the agency provides is much-needed.

"A lot of times we ask Leg Research if it's a good idea, whatever we're planning to do," he said. "We've asked about money savings and things of that nature."

Egan said that skilled staff who can find out what's been tried in the past in Alaska or elsewhere can keep state leaders from repeating mistakes.

"I know we don't care how they do it elsewhere, but if every time something has been tried it's failed, we should know that," he said.

Possible savings from the ever-tightening budget are the subject of an increasing number of research requests, Burnham said, but declined to provide more detail on the requests to avoid violating the Legislature's confidentiality rules.

"In a fiscal situation like the state's in, people are looking at what's been considered in the past," was all he would say.

Burnham said his staff will try to do as much work as possible, but may have to make some changes to make their staff time go further. One option may be to give legislators' office staff pointers on how to research an issue, rather than doing the research for them.

In other cases, their research reports will be less thorough.

"We're not going to have time to write the kind of in-depth reports we've been known for in the past," he said.

Legislative Research Services' work is only rarely made public, the agency said in it is year-end report, because the Legislature requires the reports it requests to be kept secret unless the requester specifically allows publication.

"Each year only a fraction of our work is released from confidentiality requirements," the agency said.

That allows the agency to provide unvarnished advice, without the requester worrying that by asking for research on legislation under consideration, it might be used against the proposal.

While the Legislature chose to make a major cut to its research staff, most legislative operations, including the personal staff that legislators get to hire themselves, saw few cuts.

Overall, the Legislature cut its own operations far less than the cuts it imposed on most state agencies.

It's not clear who made the decision on the research cuts. The Legislature's own budget was reviewed by the Legislative Council, but the council's chair, Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said during the session that the cuts had not happened there.

Following the Legislative Council's preliminary review, the budget was then reviewed by the finance committees in each house, but the co-chairs who handled the operating budget were unavailable for comment Friday. Both Rep. Mark Neuman and Sen. Pete Kelly were out of the office preparing for moose hunting trips, staff for each said Friday.

The cuts to the Legislative Research Services budget amounted to a savings of $343,000, according to the Legislative Finance Division. The next-largest cut was made to the larger Legislative Legal Services, which saw a reduction of $320,000.

Despite the cuts, Burnham said things could have been worse.

"I think initially they were looking at eliminating all of us, but they decided to leave enough money in the budget to keep some of us on," he said.

Burnham said that during the state's 1980s budget crisis, the entire research operation was eliminated, and rebuilding a base of expertise in the agency would take years.

(c)2015 the Alaska Dispatch News