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Alaska Legislature blows past 90-day limit towing education bill

Pat Forgey
The Alaska Legislature will go at least into a 92nd day as debate continues over HB 278, the omnibus education bill and centerpiece to a legislative session that has come to be called at Gov. Parnell's suggestion, the "education session." wikicommons

JUNEAU -- Acting as if Alaska voters hadn't limited their sessions to 90 days, legislators worked through the 2014 session's 91st day Monday, and made plans for a 92nd day on Tuesday.

The key legislation preventing conclusion of the session involves school funding, as debate continues on House Bill 278. That's the omnibus education bill that's been the centerpiece to what Gov. Parnell dubbed the "education session" in his State of the State speech in January.

Also hanging in the balance is the state's capital budget, which will incorporate the more than $100 million cost of the eventual education funding package.

The Senate gave final approval Monday to its version of HB 278, which the House rejected, setting up a conference committee of three House members and three Senate members to work out differences.

Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, appointed Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, as chair, along with Sens. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, and Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, as members.

In the House, Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, appointed Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, as conference committee chair, along with Reps. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla and Sam Kito, D-Juneau, as members.

In Monday's Senate bill debate, the public got a preview of some of the sticky questions that will face the conference committee.

Senators said there's an informal agreement to put at least some of the agreed-upon extra education money into the per-student funding known as the "base student allocation," but exactly how much remains undecided, as do numerous other controversial issues.

But the conference committee has been given what are called "free conference" powers, meaning that the eventual bill it crafts doesn't have to hew rigidly to versions already passed in each body. But whatever the conference committee does will have to be voted up or down by the full House and Senate.

A group of parents of students, as well as students themselves, have been doggedly monitoring the process of education funding. They said Monday that they had high hopes that the conference committee would put the extra school money in the BSA, as Parnell had originally proposed.

"If the funding is not in the BSA, we know that the cuts will not stop," said Jessie Menkens, a member of Great Alaska Schools.

Sen. Meyer said that the public input has already had an impact on the bill.

"The public has weighed in, we've listened and we've responded," he said.

He said the Senate has increased the funding for schools to an equivalent of $400 or more in the BSA, and even though it wasn't actually part of the BSA, the increase was significant.

"The bottom line is it all spends the same," he said. "It spends like BSA."

The Senate passed House Bill 278 by a vote of 16-4, with several Democrats opposed. Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said she couldn't vote for a bill "that we know is inadequate."

Other areas of concern in the bill include a provision which would let state funds, through tax credits, go to private or religious schools.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, warned that conflicts with the prohibitions on state money going to private schools contained in the Alaska Constitution. He based that on opinions from the Legislature's legal counsel.

"We have (Legislative Legal Services) opinions which seriously question the constitutionality of what we're about to do," he said.

But Sen. Dunleavy said that the constitutionality of the private school tax credits wouldn't be known for sure unless the Supreme Court ruled on it, and it can't do that unless it is in the bill. He said he was trying to increase private school options, but was not attacking public schools.

"I don't think there's a bigger champion of public education in the sate of Alaska than myself," Dunleavy said.

Also likely to be a focus of conference committee debate is a House provision to make obtaining tenure more difficult for some teachers. The Senate removed that from the bill.

There are also questions remaining about required local contributions to schools that could shift some school costs to local communities.

And there appears to be a growing urban-rural split developing, with big city legislators saying that they are being treated unfairly because they don't get as much per student as do smaller rural schools.

The bill calls for new studies of the foundation formula through which state funding is allocated to local districts. Meyer said that formula was flawed, and treated Anchorage unfairly because its larger schools received less for each student.

"We know it's faulty, all students should be counted the same," he said.

But Sen. Hoffman said costs are much higher in rural schools, which has been proven by studies in the past. After the last study prompted by Anchorage's complaints, it was determined that costs were even higher in the Bush than had been previously thought.

"Lo and behold, it was the rural schools that weren't getting their fair share, according to that study," he said.

The HB 278 conference committee is tentatively scheduled to begin meeting Tuesday morning, but it is not clear when it will have a decision to send to the full House and Senate.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com