Legislature approves ‘early’ funding for education, but debate over school funding isn’t over

The Legislature meets in joint session to consider Gov. Bill Walker's appointees on April 10, 2018. (Photo by Alaska Senate Majority/Flickr)

It’s not quite as early as hoped, but the Legislature approved funding for K-12 schools on Wednesday ahead of the rest of the state’s operating budget.

On a 31-9 vote, the House approved the Senate’s changes to House Bill 287. The bill, which was originally passed by the House 70 legislative days earlier, is a status quo budget that flat funds K-12 schools and other school-related spending for the upcoming year.

Gov. Bill Walker has signaled he will support the legislation.

The state’s operating budget would normally include K-12 funding, but has been passed increasingly late in recent years. Teachers and state employees have twice received warnings that they could be laid off because of the Legislature’s late budgeting.

The legislation was pitched as a way for the Legislature to avoid another disruptive–and politically damaging–round of layoff warnings.

The budget spends about $1.3 billion from the state’s undesignated general fund with nearly $1.2 billion going directly to local school districts through the state’s base student allocation funding formula.

The House originally proposed using the state’s constitutional budget reserve to fund education, a move that would have taken care of a politically tricky three-quarter vote early in the session, but was stiffly opposed by minority House Republicans.

The Senate amended the plan to use general fund dollars, but added contingency language that could also fund the following year plus a one-time bump of $30 million if Senate Bill 26 is signed into law. SB 26 would formalize withdrawals from the Alaska Permanent Fund to pay for state government through what’s called a percent of market value draw.

The Legislature is already planning on making such a draw through this year’s operating budget, but the House has refused to put it in law while it still tries to push for taxes to balance the plan.

On Wednesday, some House Republicans voted against House Bill 287 because they opposed the contingency language. Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, went as far as attempting to introduce a motion that said if the House was going to vote on Senate Bill 26 it would vote on it early enough to give voters the chance to repeal it through referendum.

Leadership in the House has been frosty towards the Senate’s contingency language, pointing out that it’s just temporary, one-time funding. Instead, the House has put forward–and passed–its own proposal to increase school funding on top of House Bill 287 for this year in a permanent fashion.

House Bill 339 passed over the weekend and would increase the base student allocation by $100. The Senate’s proposal to increase it by $30 million for one year amounts to a roughly $117 increase to the base student allocation.

Both leaders in the House and Senate acknowledged the debate over education funding will continue, whether it’s on House Bill 339 or the contingency language tied to Senate Bill 26.

The Senate Education Committee is planning to hear public testimony on House Bill 339 at its 8 a.m. meeting today.

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