In the final hours before the state constitution says lawmakers must gavel out, House Speaker Mike Chenault told reporters that funding next year’s budget is the only thing on his mind.

“We went through that scenario last year with the pink slips, and it’s just not good, it’s not good for state employees, it’s just not good on morale. So my objective was to get a budget that’s funded before we have to get out of here,” he said, adding that he will leave it to Gov. Bill Walker to call legislators in for a special session on a fiscal plan that includes a long-term proposal to use Permanent Fund earnings as an endowment and a broad-based tax.

That budget now includes a surprise cut to education. A budget conference committee Tuesday night voted to eliminate funding for a $50 increase to the base student allocation (BSA), which adds up to $12.9 million.

In both the House and Senate versions of the budget, the funding was included. Lawmakers have acknowledged that its removal by the six-member committee could be used as leverage to gain the minority’s support for a savings draw to fund the state’s $4.3 billion operating budget.

“I’m hoping it’s just a bargaining chip in this bigger budget picture, and that it’s going to come back in the budget,” said Rep. Jim Colver, adding that as a member of the majority, he’ll be required to vote for the budget even if the education funding is not restored.

The Association of Alaska School Boards (AASB) said it’s used to legislators using education as a “bargaining chip,” but said lawmakers promised early in the session that education wouldn’t be cut.

“It does make life difficult for the school districts, however, because they’re in the process of offering contracts to teachers and they have to know pretty closely how much money they will have,” said AASB’s chief editor, John Greely.

The last-minute cut sparked protest in Anchorage Wednesday afternoon where dozens attended a rally led by Great Alaska Schools. Organizer Alyse Galvin said the decision by lawmakers “comes completely as an eleventh-hour, cowardly attack on our children.”

Rep. Mark Neuman, a member of the Budget Conference Committee and co-chair of the House Finance committee, said it’s not a final cut yet.

“The speaker can go back and work with the minority and use it as a negotiating option or not,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s what they want in part of what they’re negotiating, I suspect it probably is.”

Even if the money is restored, some members of the minority said they still won’t vote for a state operating budget that includes cuts to senior benefits and the University of Alaska.

“I’m not going to violate my conscience just because somebody else wants me to,” said Rep. Les Gara in an interview Wednesday.

When asked whether the Legislature is close to reaching a budget agreement, Chenault replied, “Probably closer than we think. But I don’t know that. It could fall apart tomorrow, it could fall apart in a minute, I’ll know later, and I’ll let you know when I know, how’s that?”

According to the Alaska State Constitution, the regular legislative session ends Wednesday.

KTVA 11’s Liz Raines can be reached via email or on Facebook and Twitter.