Lawmakers bank on popular cause to bridge budget gap
In raising new money for the state budget, lawmakers are looking to a popular cause for support — public education.
With a $3-billion shortfall in state coffers, lawmakers know they’ve got to bring in new money. Unlike legislative per diems or travel budgets, collecting money for education is considered a non-controversial way to bridge the gap.
Members of the House majority have vowed to make the department a top priority this session.
“I see education as one of our primary responsibilities in the state, you know, that’s our job,” said Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, co-chair of the House Finance Committee.
“We have a constitutional obligation to provide an appropriate public school education,” added Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, at a press conference Tuesday.
Seaton has rolled out a proposal to use $1.7 billion of the permanent fund’s earnings to forward-fund education. His colleague, Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, also introduced a measure to levy an income tax just for the department.
“Often when times are tough, this is what you do, you tend to find some kind of purpose that the public will at least not entirely oppose and try to get a tax passed or some mechanism passed to help pay for it,” said Christopher Clark, who worked in Alaska state government for decades.
Now, an avid political observer, he’s not surprised to see lawmakers focused on K-12, as they were when state coffers took hits in the past.
“We’ve had proposals similar to this in the past,” Clark said. “We had a governor, Steve Cowper, who had a science and technology endowment fund and again the idea was to focus a pot of money towards something that people could support as a way to promote something that people like and also to balance the state fiscal gap.”
According to the Alaska Senate majority’s statewide polls, Alaskans support further funding education — 65 percent of participants said they support an education tax.
That’s why Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, has introduced a bill to make chipping in a choice: a lottery Alaskans can choose to enter, using their Permanent Fund Dividend.
“Who can’t get behind education? It’s mom, apple pie and Chevrolet,” Bishop said of Senate Bill 78. “It’s thinking outside the box, it’s voluntary, it’s not a tax and it’s limited to one time a year.”
Tickets would cost $100, which Alaskans could purchase when registering for their annual PFD check. Half of the money raised would go directly to education, while the other half would be split between an endowment for education and prizes for four lottery winners:
- 10 percent for the first drawing winner
- 5 percent for the second drawing winner
- 3 percent for the third drawing winner
- 2 percent for the fourth drawing winner
Bishop says the grand prize would max out at $50 million, with any additional money raised going to the education endowment.
Of the three cash-collecting proposals in the Legislature, Bishop’s is the only one that’s optional. So far, it’s picked up the backing of eight other senators since its introduction Monday.
According to the Alaska constitution, lawmakers cannot dedicate funds to a specific cause, like education. Future legislators could decide to use the money raised for something else, but historically, Clark says lawmakers have tended to honor the intent of previous endowment proposals.
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