On July 9th, Melanie Bahnke was invited to testify on behalf of Kawerak to the Alaska House Finance Committee.

The audio of her testimony can be found here: Bahnke Testimony

The transcript of her testimony is as follows:

“For the record, I am Melanie Bahnke, President and CEO of Kawerak, Inc., the regional non-profit in the Bering Strait Region.

Co-Chairs Representative Foster and Representative Wilson, and Members of the House Finance Committee, I want to express to you my appreciation to you for allowing me to testify at this historic point in our state’s history.  I also want to thank the legislature for having developed a compromise budget and uniting for Alaska.  Unfortunately, the vetoes have had the effect of dividing your body yet again. Ironically, this issue of the vetoes has actually brought Alaskans from all different kinds of walks of life together, as we unite in an unprecedented way to call for the legislature to override the vetoes.

By way of information, Kawerak employs over 200 people in our region and we are a partner with the State in providing services.  We operate a Head Start program, which serves over 220 children.  The veto to the Head Start budget will result of a loss of over half a million dollars in funding for Kawerak.  This funding provides a match for our federal Head Start grant. It brings in, for every State dollar that we use in our Head Start program, 4 additional dollars from the federal government.  Our Village Public Safety Officer Program is currently – we have 3 applicants in the process that we’ve been told to freeze the process of hiring them.  We do have 5 VPSOs employed, so this means, in a region with 15 villages, that if we stay at 5 VPSOs, two-thirds of our villages will have no public safety.  We also, among the other services that we partner with the State for, we have a Child Advocacy Center, where we provide services to children who have been sexually abused, we provide family services, we provide Adult Basic Education, and we also put people who are on welfare to work.  So we have a big interest in these vetoes.

Indirect cuts that are not necessarily affecting Kawerak but will affect our region’s community members are the closure of the Nome Youth Facility, which is a detention center for youth have been incarcerated.  This facility is slated to close on July 14thif you do not act to override the vetoes. The adult dental Medicaid program is impacting people already.  I heard just the other day about a special needs adult who was going to have his wisdom teeth removed who was told by his provider that dental Medicaid is no longer an option for that.  The University of Alaska system cuts – we have currently 76 higher education scholarship recipients in the University of Alaska system statewide.  25 attend UAF, 20 attend UAA, 14 attend the Northwest campus, 6 attend the University of Alaska Southeast, and 11 are attending higher education in the University of Alaska, Juneau.  We are making progress in terms of people from our region seeking higher education and obtaining degrees and becoming employable productive citizens for the state.  Our homeless shelter, the Nome Emergency Shelter Team – I heard, I believe it was a representative from Anchorage who asked Diane Kaplan, “Will these vetoes actually cause people to die?”, and she wasn’t able to answer that directly.  For our region, that’s an answer that I can provide.  The answer is yes.  We did have people freezing on our streets, up until we were able to open an emergency shelter, especially in the winter time.  It averages about 20-30 people, it’s only open during the winter when people are at their most vulnerable and at risk of freezing to death.  And since the emergency shelter has opened, we have had zero instances of people freezing to death on the streets.  I’m concerned that if their funding is cut, we will see people dying, or maybe committing crimes on purpose so that they can go to jail so that they have a roof over their heads.

I could go on and on, but you’ve been presented with the data.  The data is out there.  You’ve also been presented with useful information.  There have been rallies.  I think though, more than anything, what I offer you is to encourage you to act, to let you know that Alaskans are paying attention to what is going on.  I’m not sure what motivated each of you individually to seek political office.  I’m grateful for your service.  If it was to leave your mark in history, that is happening now.  This situation has made national news.  Thismoment, and this legislature shall be remembered as historic as Alaska faces a fork in the road.  Budgets passed by various legislatures don’t go down in history as memorable.  However, human rights issues are alwaysremembered.  This is a human rights issue.  Segregation legislators were historic too.  When Alaska legislators considered the Civil Rights law, which Elizabeth Peratrovich bravely testified in favor of, the nay votes, are remembered.  This is a human rights issue and human rights issues are always remembered.  We are at a fork in the road for our state.  We must protect our most vulnerable people. You need to override the Governor’s vetoes.

When the Governor was in Nome, I was very hesitant to speak up.  I thought who am I to stand up to the Governor?  And yet, I did because I care about our region and our State, and our people.  You, of all people, in this state, can use your voice too, and you actually wield a much more powerful weapon than just a voice, you have a vote.  You can change the tide, or you can go down in history as having stood by as Alaska drowned.  Be on the right side of history.  Override the vetoes.  Thank you.”