House passes education budget, but minority Republicans block funding source

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

The House passed the education budget early on Wednesday night by a wide margin, but came up far short on a vote to actually fund the $1.2 billion budget.

There was broad bipartisan support for settling the key pieces of the education budget early in the session and bringing an end to the headaches and uncertainty created in recent years by the Legislature’s sluggish budgeting, but the House was bitterly divided over what funding to use.

House Bill 287 passed the House on a 33-3 vote, but a vote to tap the Constitutional Budget Reserve fell well short of the 30 votes it needed with a largely caucus-line vote of 20-16. The House Majority Coalition favored tapping the tough-to-tap CBR, while the minority Republicans argued that education should be funded with general fund dollars and offered an amendment to change the funding source (which also failed along caucus lines).

Though the night was mostly spent talking about education, schools, students and teachers, the underlying debate was all about that three-quarter vote.

The three-quarter vote has long been one of few pieces of leverage that a minority can hold over the majority, which has been a focus of recent budgeting in the House regardless of which party holds the majority (the operating budget almost always passes out of the House without a CBR vote, only to get it when returning from the Senate). Senate Republicans have typically had a supermajority in recent years (though it’s more shaky now) resulting in a completely different budget process in the Senate.

The dwindling CBR’s funds are no longer enough to cover the deficit this year, as it has in the past, and legislators are eyeing the earnings reserve of the Alaska Permanent Fund as the primary source to cover budget shortfalls (hopefully with a structured draw if they’re going to go that route). The account can be tapped with a majority vote, but most plans still count on a small draw from the CBR.

Wednesday night’s vote was an maneuver to attempt to take care of the CBR vote early, but minority Republicans weren’t nearly so eager to cede their power so early in the session. There were plenty of arguments about all the reasons not to make a draw from the CBR, but that three-quarter vote is the core issue at play.

Minority Republicans will be able to hold out on the CBR vote, cashing it in later to secure their priorities like deeper cuts, which is just what Democrats have done in the past.

Why it matters

Though it’s likely a short-term setback for the House Majority Coalition to have up short in securing a CBR vote this early in the session, they won’t walk away empty-handed. In an election year where campaigns will be looking for any edge, the House minority Republicans all just registered a vote that can be packaged into campaign ads as a vote against education funding.

It’s not entirely accurate because the minority Republicans offered up a different, viable funding source, but since when have political campaigns been about nuance?

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