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Private-school funding measure, lacking votes, pulled from Senate floor

Lisa Demer

JUNEAU -- An effort by conservatives to dramatically restructure Alaska's educational system through a constitutional amendment collapsed Wednesday when a key Republican senator said they didn't have the votes. The measure was pulled from the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon.

During the floor session, Senate majority leader John Coghill asked for the measure to be returned to the Rules Committee at the request of its prime sponsor, Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla.

Sen. Lesil McGuire, who chairs the Rules Committee, said earlier that Senate Joint Resolution 9 was heading back to her committee for lack of support. That's where legislation sits awaiting action by the full Senate.

"The subject of the constitutional amendment is over for today," McGuire said after emerging from a meeting in Senate President Charlie Huggins office. Dunleavy was also in the meeting, along with other key senators. McGuire and Huggins are among the seven co-sponsors.

The proposal sought to change Alaska's Constitution by allowing public money to be spent on private schooling. It required support of two-thirds of the senators, or 14 of the 20 members. While Dunleavy and Huggins said this week they thought they could secure the votes, the effort fell apart Wednesday.

The measure isn't necessarily dead, however.

"We always tell the bill sponsor that if they get the votes, there's always opportunity," McGuire said.

Dunleavy said in an interview that he asked for his proposed amendment to return to the Rules Committee while he continues to research the matter.

"I am waiting for information to come in that I hope -- I think -- will seal the deal," Dunleavy said. The research was "legal in nature" but wasn't coming from the Legislature's legal arm, he said. He said he would explain the information more completely once he receives and evaluates it.

Backers said they want to give parents and students more choice, especially those who cannot afford private schools. But opponents said the measure would drain money from already squeezed public schools and worried it would devastate Alaska's educational system.

Dunleavy said a majority of both Senate and House members support the constitutional change, but that two-thirds support is a high bar. If the measure passed both the House and the Senate, it would go before Alaska voters in the November general election, where a simple majority would be enough to pass it.

All five Democrats in the Senate minority caucus said they opposed the measure, as did three members of the GOP-led majority organization: Republicans Gary Stevens of Kodiak, Click Bishop of Fairbanks and Democrat Dennis Egan of Juneau. Others said they were undecided.

Alaska Family Council board chairman David Bronson, the council's high profile president, Jim Minnery, and David Boyle, executive director of the Alaska Policy Forum gathered outside Huggins' office Wednesday hoping for a different result. The Alaska Family Council is a conservative social cause advocacy group, and the forum is a conservative think tank. Both organizations have been pushing the proposed amendment.

Bronson said he wanted the proposed amendment to clear the Legislature and wasn't pushing for senators to be pressured to vote publicly.

Senate leaders late Friday surprised even some members of their own caucus when they scheduled the measure for a vote before the full Senate. They pushed back Wednesday's floor session from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. to evaluate whether to go forward.

Dunleavy had told reporters Tuesday he thought he had support to pass the measure. Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks and majority leader, indicated he would support bringing it to the floor for a vote even if the number fell short.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 952-3965.


By LISA DEMER
ldemer@adn.com
Contact Lisa Demer at LDemer@adn.com or on