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Conference committee set to resolve education bill versions

Richard Mauer

JUNEAU -- The Senate finally passed the education bill Monday afternoon, little changed from the version on its agenda since last week.

Then, in a move choreographed by legislative leaders before the 16-4 Senate vote was taken at 4:50 p.m., the House rejected the Senate version in favor of its own, and a free conference committee was appointed from both chambers to resolve the differences.

The Legislature posted a notice that the committee would begin meeting 9 p.m. Monday. Then, a short time after that meeting was set, it was cancelled, following a pattern of indecision running through the Legislature over its closing days. Now the conference committee is scheduled to start meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

Two of the House members of the conference committee, Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, and Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, said the evening session was cancelled because everyone was too tired.

The House and Senate scheduled floor sessions of their respective bodies at 11 a.m. Tuesday. Gattis and Kito said it was unlikely the conference committee could resolve the education bills by then, so it was unclear if both bodies would meet anyway or just stand ready for the conference committee to finish -- if it can.

Will those House and Senate sessions herald the end of the 28th Legislature, two days overdue?

Possibly. While numerous bills remain in limbo, only two are at issue: the education bill and the capital budget. The capital budget is sitting in the House, poised for passage and for sending to the Senate.

Senate leaders said that under the end-game plan, the capital budget, usually a vehicle for construction projects and other public works, will be used to pay for the programs in the education bill, including whatever ultimately dollar amount the Legislature sets to support local districts.

A free conference committee has broad powers to negotiate a final settlement, crafting a bill that doesn't necessarily meld the two versions it starts with.

In addition to Kito and Gattis, committee members are Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, and Sens. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, and Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel.

All the senators are members of the Senate Finance Committee, which produced the Senate's version of the education bill. Gattis is the chair and Kito a member of the House Education Committee, while Hawker is an alternate on House Finance and is a close ally of House leadership.

Kito and Gattis said most parts of the two wide-ranging education bills are similar or identical. The big points of contention are the amount and method of funding local districts, and whether teacher tenure should be the same throughout Alaska as is currently the law.

The state's base student allocation, the per-student funding formula, has become the flashpoint in the debate. Parents and school districts say they like money to be placed in the BSA because it's a stable funding source that gets approved year after year. And like a salary, raises of the BSA are cumulative.

Some legislators, particularly in the Senate, have expressed a dislike for the BSA, partly because it effectively binds future Legislatures, even if it's only a moral and not a legal obligation. They also say that the BSA has worked against reform, because districts get the money whether or not they improve graduation rates and test scores.

The BSA has been stuck at $5,680 since 2011, and districts say that's a big reason for planned layoffs of teachers and other staff. Parents and Democratic legislators have said the BSA needs to be increased this year by $400 and in 2016 and 2017 by $125 to get back to recent staffing levels and protect against future cuts.

The House bill increased the BSA by $185 in 2015 and $58 in each of the next two years.

The Senate bill put nothing extra in the BSA. But it provided about $75 million in new money to districts in each of the next three years, plus additional funds for programs such as charter and residential schools.

Alyse Galvin, an Anchorage parent and spokeswoman for Great Alaska Schools Anchorage, said neither bill provides adequate funding.

Gattis and Kito said the conference committee would also have to deal with teacher tenure. The House bill changed the waiting time for a teacher in an urban to get tenure from three years to five. The Senate bill doesn't touch current law, which is three years for teachers no matter where they work.

Kito said he plans to try to remove the tax credit for donations to religious schools that's present in both versions. He said Democrats believe the credit to be unconstitutional.

Gattis and Kito said they don't expect to be directed by leadership to achieve a particular outcome, though the committee may get guidance on where to focus its efforts.

Exhaustion has been wearing down legislators and their staffs, brought on by the failure of the House and Senate to adjourn on time -- within the 90 days specified by law. The Senate was in session till after 4 a.m. Monday -- the 91st day -- before it gave up. While the House schedule wasn't quite as grueling, it too has been working late hours.

While the education and capital bills are the main focus of attention, the overtime has allowed the Legislature to consider and pass far less controversial bills that might otherwise have died at the final gavel. Among them are bills governing personal trainers, lowering the costs of business licenses to people with multiple lines of business, and the like.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 1-907-500-7388.

 


By RICHARD MAUER
rmauer@adn.com
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