AD Main Menu

Senate panel passes capital budget

Sean CockerhamMcClatchy-Tribune News Service

JUNEAU -- The Alaska Senate on Saturday night unveiled a $380 million bond package that would fund a sports arena at the University of Alaska Anchorage, construction of rural schools and more. This brings to nearly $2.8 billion the amount that senators want to spend on construction and maintenance projects, a total that's left many lawmakers and the governor gasping.

Unlike the rest of the projects in the budget, the proposed $380 million bond package would go before voters for approval this fall if it passes the full Legislature.

It would be presented on the ballot as a single slate for an up or down vote, with voters choosing to take all or none. The Senate Finance Committee carefully crafted the bond proposal to include projects in different regions of the state.

The idea is to appeal to as broad a group of voters as possible, those who will want to support a project in their area.

It includes $80 million for a new UAA sports arena and money to pay for a $108.6 million sciences classroom and lab facility at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. There's $23.5 million for an arts and learning center at Mat-Su campus.

It has $128.5 million in it for schools in Western Alaska, which includes replacement of the school in Alakanuk and renovation of the schools in Kipnuk and Kwigillingok.

It includes $20 million for a state library, archives and museum building in Juneau. There's another combined $40 million for a fish and game research building in the Kodiak area and an aquatic facility at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, a state boarding school for rural students.

Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman, who is the main senator behind the construction bond package, said the Mt. Edgecumbe facility would also be used by Alaska State Troopers and the Coast Guard.

The bond projects come on top of the Senate Finance Committee's proposed capital budget for construction and maintenance projects. Added together, the two total $2.77 billion, of which about $1 billion is federal money. That's among the biggest construction budgets the state has ever put together.

The full Senate will now decide whether to approve the plan, which would then go to the House and the governor.

Senate Minority Leader Con Bunde said the state won't be able to support this kind of spending with declining oil production. He called the plan a challenge to Gov. Sean Parnell, who said lawmakers are on a path to a "bloated" budget. He has the power to veto projects from the capital budget.

"It's got to be throwing a gauntlet down to him as far as vetoes," said Bunde, an Anchorage Republican.

Stedman said the Senate has put billions of dollars into savings in recent years. A new state revenue forecast released Friday shows a projected surplus from high oil prices that's even bigger than previously expected, Stedman said, with $12 billion projected in the state's budget reserve.

Stedman, who is crafting the spending plan along with Bethel Democratic Sen. Lyman Hoffman, has called it an effort to create jobs. The state's economy needs a shot, Stedman said, and that's not going to come from only piling money into savings.

The state will take on debt for projects in the bond package, instead of just paying for them with cash. That's causing some heartburn in the Legislature, with lawmakers who argue that if the state has the money it should pay for them outright. That would also allow work to begin this summer, instead of waiting to see if voters approve the bonds in the fall.

Stedman said the finance committee decided to do bonds because it would let voters decide on the projects.

"You could put them in the capital budget and pay cash. But these are significant infrastructure buildings for the state and it gives the people of the state the ability to vote on it," Stedman said.

The Legislature's last bond package was in 2008, when voters approved $315 million in transportation projects. Chugiak Republican Rep. Bill Stoltze said he doesn't think voters have ever turned down bonds for education projects, like the university and school buildings that the Senate wants to put before them this fall.

"But most have been a lot smaller," the Chugiak Republican said.

One project that's not in either the budget or the bond package is a proposed $76 million crime lab in Anchorage the governor has pushed. Parnell met with members of the state House majority on Saturday and told them he still wants the crime lab funded. Representatives in the meeting said he has not explicitly threatened vetoes of any other projects that did make the budget.

The crime lab could be added in the House. But there's not much time left. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn for the year in just one week.

House members will need to decide whether to accept the size of the Senate budget, make it bigger by adding their own projects, or fight the Senate on it.

"The budget is big," said Anchorage Republican Rep. Charisse Millett. "It's probably a little tough for me to swallow."

Alaska Politics blog: Help us sort out the capital budget
More Alaska Legislature coverage