By Senator Gene Therriault
April 02, 2004
Legislators from both parties in both the House and Senate agree that education funding should be increased, we even agree on approximately how much it should be increased-between $82 million and $84.5 million.
The sticking point lies in the "package" of other projects that has been demanded in order to gain the 15 Senate votes and 30 House votes needed to access the Constitutional Budget Reserve.
Two proposals are currently on the table.
On March 5, the Senate Majority amended an existing bill, Senate Bill 35, to increase K-12 funding by $82 million, which includes money to cover shortfalls in the public employees and teachers retirement systems due to market fluctuations and increased health costs. The bill passed the Senate unanimously, but the CBR vote failed 11 to 7.
I now realize that an extra day or two between rolling out Senate Bill 35 in the Finance Committee and moving it to the floor for a vote may have helped secure the needed votes. However, with Senators traveling to Washington D.C. for the national Energy Council meeting and the request for quick action from school districts, we felt immediate action was critical.
On March 8, the House amended a different K-12 education package onto an existing bill, Senate Bill 283. The House increased the K-12 budget, but also included a list of non-education related capital projects totaling roughly $10 million.
The Senate, in turn, countered with a proposal to include $7.4 million to fund the top projects on the Department of Education school district major maintenance list.
Both plans depend on a three-quarters vote to balance spending for fiscal years 2004 and 2005 using the CBR. We tied the CBR draw to education spending because we believe education is the type of statewide priority that warrants such a vote, and we rolled out the plan early to allow school districts to plan their budgets accordingly.
Unfortunately, we have not reached agreement on what capital projects should be included to reach the necessary votes. The Senate finds the $10 million in non-education related discretionary capital projects demanded by the House Democrats unacceptable, and came back with what we believe to be a much more appropriate list that addresses the top 16 school projects of the Department of Education. It is important to note that we chose to fund the top priority projects of the Department-all in rural areas. We did not hopscotch down the list to make political points, but relied on the best judgment of the Department.
The projects include $603,000 for Allakaket to replace or repair water and sewer facilities and aging boilers, and to renovate restrooms in a school built in 1979; $170,000 for code violations in the Andreafski High School; and $90,000 to install a new well in an Anvik school built in 1979. The Anvik well failed in 1998 and the school has since paid maintenance and usage fees to the city of Anvik.
In contrast, the House list includes pet projects such as $250,000 for a boat haul out, $100,000 for a bulldozer and $50,000 for a seawall.
The House list also includes $3.4 million for erosion control in Shishmaref. The Senate Majority package also includes money for this community, but in the sum of $450,000 to match U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funding, which would allow access to a total of $1.6 million to protect the school in Shishmaref.
While I am disappointed that our early efforts have not yet provided closure for school districts caught in the grip of this gridlock, I am still hopeful we will reach agreement soon. The Senate has officially rejected the House capital list and anticipates appointing a Conference Committee to negotiate an acceptable compromise.
Note: Sen. Gene Therriault
(R-North Pole) is a member of the Alaska Legislature and is Senate
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Sitnews.