Lawmakers pass two big education spending bills

The 22-18 vote that passed the $100 base student allocation bill.

JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) — The Alaska House and the Senate each passed major education funding bills on Saturday, Day 89 of the Legislative session, but the bills are very different from each other.

The House bill would raise the base student allocation by $100. That’s the amount, currently just under $6,000, that the state sends to every school district for each enrolled child. The new addition, in House Bill 339, would amount to about $25 million, and would increase the base for future years.

The Senate-passed bill, the “early” education funding measure passed by the House in February as House Bill 287, is a flat-funding bill for 2019 but adds $30 million in 2020. The $30 million would use the BSA formula, but the money would be one-time funding and it would be available only if the House agreed to pass another bill.

The fact that the House and Senate were open for business Saturday and plan to go Sunday shows that the session is in its closing days — Day 90 would be the end of the session under a voter-approved initiative in 2006, but lawmakers say they intend to go longer and instead obey the 120-day limit in the Alaska Constitution — which actually is 121 days, according to the Alaska Supreme Court.

The BSA bill originated in the House. If the Senate ignores it or fails to pass it, it will die at the end of session.

The early funding bill is different. While it, too, originated in the House, where it passed in February, it has been through all its stops in the Senate. If the House doesn’t agree to the Senate changes, and the Senate remains adamant about them, the bill would have to be added to the list of measures in conference committee.

In a speech on the floor of the senate, Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said he was “troubled by the contingency language” in the Senate bill. It would require the House to pass Senate Bill 26.

But, Wielechowski noted, the House has indeed passed that bill.

“There’s two versions right now,” Wielechowski said. “SB 26 from the House includes an income tax. I have no idea what SB 26 looks like.”

SB 26 passed both chambers last year, but a conference committee appointed to reconcile the differences has never met.

Both House and Senate versions include a “structured draw” from the Permanent Fund, meaning each would set a limit on how much can be taken from the fund’s earnings reserves for state government and dividends.

The Senate version imposes a $4.1 billion state spending limit, while the House version only asks the governor to report how the budget complies with a spending limit in the Alaska Constitution — a limit that opponents say is so large as to be meaningless.

The House version doesn’t directly create an income tax, but it too has contingency language — it doesn’t take effect unless the Senate passes a “broad-based tax” like an income tax that generates at least $650 million, and additional oil taxes.

Just before the “early-funding” bill passed the Senate 15-4, Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, urged senators to vote for it it.

“We all have an opportunity to support K-12 education today — it’s in front of us,” she said.

The four “Nos“ Anchorage Democrats Wielechowski and Tom Begich and Mat-Su Valley Republicans Shelley Hughes and Mike Shower. Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, was absent.

The Senate passed the early funding bill in about 30 minutes. The BSA measure took over an hour to pass the House, with 16 legislators speaking for or against it. Most of the supporters said the money was needed to prevent teacher layoffs and another year of flat education funding. Opponents said that lawmakers should be looking at education outcomes and ask why students have not been succeeding in Alaska.

The prime sponsor of the BSA bill was Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, who opened his speech on the bill with a slightly modified quote from Nelson Mandela, the South African hero.

“Education is the most powerful weapon we have to change the world,” Gara said. “We’ve lost hundreds and hundreds of teachers and support staff across the state — we’ve lost roughly 400 in Anchorage.”

Gara criticized the “flat funding” of education that Senate leaders are proposing, which, through inflation, means spending is reduced.

“Next year, if we don’t pass this bill and we go through another year of flat funding — which means another year of funding that doesn’t keep up with costs — in Anchorage we’ll lose another 100 teachers and support staff,” Gara said.

An opponent, Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, said she wanted to see what other Senate education funding packages come along, such as one that would allow districts to close schools with low enrollments without immediately losing the state money for keeping the school open.

“I’m going to chose to be open minded and at this point cannot support this bill,” she said. “I want to hear the other ones that are there to find out whether or not they address what we have — and one of the biggest issues is, a lot of our students not succeeding for whatever reason it is, and that is not an urban and rural argument, that is a state of Alaska issue.”

The bill passed 22-18, mainly on caucus lines. But Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai, supported the measure, and Rep. Sam Kito, D-Juneau, who quit the majority last week and is now in no caucus, opposed it.

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