Senate debates education spending during session overtime
Lawmakers return to the Capitol on Tuesday — their second day past the 90-day session — to finish work on an education bill and the capital budget, “must have” pieces of legislation before adjournment.
On Monday, there was considerable Senate debate over HB 278, the governor’s omnibus education bill which contains a long list of education reforms as well as spending for schools.
“We’re always talking about this bill as the omnibus bill,” said Sen. Gary Stevens, (R) Kodiak. “I’ve had people come to my office and call it the ominous bill.”
The observation drew some laughter in the Senate. Stevens, who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said there are things he likes about the bill and things he doesn’t, but in general he thought the bill was balanced.
Before the Senate vote, Democrats tried to amend the bill.
Sen. Berta Gardner, a member of the Senate Education Committee, tried to put money into the base student allocation, which the Senate Finance Committee stripped from the House version of the bill.
Sen. Hollis French, minority leader for Senate Democrats, reminded lawmakers the public wants to see increases in the BSA because the funding mechanism is more stable and will prevent teacher and staff cutbacks.
He said education advocates have chanted, rallied, written letters and flown to Juneau at their own expense to urge the Legislature to raise the BSA.
“They’re here for a passionate, passionate and powerful belief, that what we do to education affects us for 30 years,” French said. “I share that belief, Mr. President. We all do. This is not something that divides us.”
“The seeds of what we put in the ground is going to grow up into great oak trees.”
But Senate majority leaders have a different view on how and where to plant those seeds.
Sen. Anna Fairclough, vice chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, supports putting money outside the BSA because it can be moved to areas of education that promote more innovation.
“We need to put all of our heads together in a room, and we need to think about our students’ future,” Fairclough said. “It’s not sitting in a classroom. It’s doing things with computers, technology and wherever their heart wants to go. It’s preparing them for their future.”
Democrats also tried to remove a tax credit from the bill which would allow companies to deduct donations to private or religious schools. They questioned the provision’s constitutionality.
Sen. Mike Dunleavy, who pushed for a constitutional amendment to allow state money to be used for private and religious schools, said the tax credit would not violate the constitution and could help children access programs that aren’t offered by public schools.
“I think it has possibilities to help a lot of Alaskans,” Dunleavy said. “And I think that’s the job of this Legislature — to help a lot of Alaskans. If we’re going to give tax credits for fish, fish guts, fish eyes, fish scales, fish tails, we’re not gonna help our kids.”
The amendments Democrats introduced failed, and HB 278 passed along party lines by a 16-4 vote.
Later Monday evening, the House rejected the Senate’s version of the bill because it does not put money into the BSA.
The House’s version adds $300 to the BSA, to be spread out over three years. It also includes an additional $30 million in school spending.
The Senate version increases education spending by putting $100 million into the budget for education for three years in a row.
Supporters say it’s a rare move for the Legislature to forward-fund education for a three-year period. They say it’s a bad idea to keep putting money into the BSA, a funding mechanism they believe is flawed and should be changed. The Senate bill also includes money to review the state’s complicated funding mechanism for education.
Critics say the Senate bill is misleading because the $100 million in spending is actually only $75 million in new money: The figure the Senate arrived at includes $25 million already budgeted for education.
Over the years, the Legislature has used a general rule of thumb: Every $25 million increase is equivalent to $100 in the BSA. So the Senate’s $75 million increase is roughly equivalent to adding $300 to the BSA.
Democrats and other proponents of increasing the BSA like the mechanism because they say it brings more stability to education funding. Once money is added to the BSA, it stays in the formula.
The BSA is part of how the state calculates how much to spend per student. It also has a number of adjustments, which help school districts, which is why the House doesn’t like the Senate’s plan to add money outside the BSA.
“The BSA is tied to a lot of funding factors in the formula,” said Rep. Cathy Munoz, who is a Juneau Republican, member of the House Finance Committee and supporter of increasing the BSA beyond what the House included.
“It’s tied to the area cost differential and vocational education. The multiplier for special education. So in total, having money in the BSA actually brings more money to districts,” Munoz said. “For example, here in Juneau, the base student allocation is about $5,600 now, but the real funding that goes to the district is about $10,000 per student. It varies from district to district, based on the factors in the formula.”
The House has a rare alignment of Democrats and Republicans who want to see the BSA boosted. The only question is by how much.
Democrats want to see a $404 increase next year, and $125 added in each of the following to years — the amount they say will help districts avoid future layoffs and perhaps restore some positions that have been cut in recent years.
“When you look at the dollar amounts, the Senate’s approach is pretty close to what the House has put forward,” Munoz said. “So it’s my hope that we will be able to come together and find a solution.”
The conference committee process over HB 278 has begun. It could take another day to resolve the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.
In the meantime, both bodies are using the overtime to vote on legislation that wouldn’t have been considered had not the Legislature continued working past its 90-day session.
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