Legislature could fund schools early, but some Republicans say not so fast

The Alaska House chambers. (Photo by Mark Hogan/Flickr Creative Commons)

Education funding is one of Legislature’s most dependable budget battles, regardless of the state of the state’s budget. And now that the Legislature’s been taking an increasingly long time to pass a budget, it’s created increasingly bad headaches for school districts and municipalities that wait and wonder about state funding.

There’s a new effort by moderate Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate that would take the basic elements of school funding–the base student allocation, pupil transportation and a few other elements–out of the end-of-session negotiations by funding them early.

But this week House Minority Republicans have registered their opposition to the move, saying it’s admitting defeat on passing a budget on time.

The idea

There are two separate bills on this issue that are working their way through the Legislature. Senate Bill 131 by Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, would require the Legislature pass an separate education budget by April 1 starting in 2019. House Bill 287 by Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, would fund the basic elements of education early this year with a draw from the constitutional budget reserve.

The move, Seaton explained in the House Finance Committee on Tuesday, would take the basic elements of education funding off the table for the usual end-of-session budget negotiations between the House and Senate, giving greater certainty to school districts and municipalities that are also trying to write their budgets.

He also said there’s agreement already between the Democrat-led House and the Republican-led Senate to leave education funding alone this year. The House funding bill would fund education through a draw from the constitutional budget reserve, a vote that requires a three-quarter vote of both chambers of the Legislature, meaning the House Majority Coalition would need the buy-in of minority Republicans.

The debate

House Minority Republicans have been frosty on the move, saying that it complicates the budget process by setting part of it in stone before the Legislature decides on an overall direction on spending.

“This is a good idea, it’s a nice concept, but I feel like we haven’t vetted this enough,” said Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, at a House Finance Committee meeting on Tuesday. “To force the entire Legislature into a three-quarter vote to draw from the CBR this early in the process, before the Legislature really knows what they want to do with the entire budget, is a bit premature. … This is kind of usurping the entire process.”

Others say that if there is agreement on education spending, then it shouldn’t matter whether it’s settled now or later.

“Education is not going to be a debated point,” said Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, during a news conference this morning. “I think there’s pretty much alignment there. If that’s the case, then what’s the need to go forward with this? Unless you’re planning, again, on failing to get out of here in 90 days.”

At the Tuesday committee meeting, Seaton said a vote now would still settle the issue, locking in the guarantees to leave education funding alone this year.

“Why don’t we wait?” he said. “Because the way you get full knowledge and security is you have a vote.”

Senate Bill 131 has already advanced from the Senate Education Committee and is currently in the Senate Finance Committee. The House Finance Committee is scheduled to take public testimony on House Bill 287 during its 1:30 p.m. meeting today.

What school districts are saying

School districts and local governments have generally given glowing testimony on both the House and Senate bills, saying that taking the guesswork out of budgeting would be a significant, positive change for schools. Not only would the early budget take the guesswork out of local budgeting as far as cuts or tax increases, forcing some districts to send out pink slip warnings, but the late budgeting also interferes with most of the opportunities for teacher recruitment that occur in the late spring.

“School districts need notice of funding levels as early as possible to help planning efforts for the upcoming school year,” said David Piazza, the superintendent of the Southwest Region School District, during testimony last week. “Although southwest region did not send out pink slips to employees last year, the district did hesitate on making hiring decisions early. This made for a long and drawn-out hiring season. Where the district normally has all its positions filled by June 1, the district had several vacancies–including two principal teacher positions–into the summer months.”

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