JUNEAU -- The Legislature's free conference committee opened for business Tuesday morning with the goal of merging the House and Senate education bills into a single version that could pass both bodies.
If an agreement is reached on the education bill, the only other major bill left is the capital budget. It could pass quickly and the 28th Legislature could be history once the conference committee concludes its work.
But with a plodding and deliberate chairman, Rep. Mike Hawker, it remained an open guess on Tuesday when the job would be done. The Legislature was already more than 34 hours past the statutory deadline for adjournment when Hawker gaveled the committee's first meeting of the day to order about 10:30 a.m. A three-hour afternoon session began after 2.
"This is not going to be something we rush through," Hawker said after legislative staff went through a seven-page, 54-item grid detailing the similarities and differences between House and Senate versions. "It will come together as quickly as we can find consensus in the building, either today, tomorrow or throughout the coming week."
Before closing the afternoon session, Hawker told antsy legislators and staff that he would probably call them back Wednesday morning for what could be the final meeting of the committee, though he held out some hope it could even conclude Tuesday night.
"It's possible we will but we're not going to be doing this at four in morning, I assure you," said Hawker, an obvious reference to the Senate session that recessed at 4 a.m. Monday with its work still undone.
Hawker, a long-serving Anchorage Republican close to House leadership and trained in the exacting standards of a CPA, is chairman of the conference committee because the education bill, House Bill 278, originated in the House.
The Legislature doesn't often invoke free conference committees, which are allowed to change bills at will -- as long as the contents fit into the original bill title. But from a political standpoint, a free conference committee has to stay within the consensus of the majority of both House and Senate, which will have to vote on its final product.
The Legislature has convened five free conference committees since 2005, not counting the current one or those involving budget bills, according to research by the Legislative Reference Library. While all the bills that were subject to free conference committees ultimately passed and became laws, getting there was often arduous.
In 2005, it took one regular conference committee and two free conference committees before an agreement was reached on a bill affecting public employee retirement. It took more than two weeks to conclude the process.
The current Legislature got into unresolvable measures last year but the subjects of the bill were so obscure -- a hair crab fishery and a regional economic assistance program -- that few people outside those directly affected were aware of it. The issue simmered after the first session gaveled out in April 2013 and was finally resolved 10 days after the free conference committee was impaneled in February.
For the education bill, Hawker said he would stick to consensus and allow members frequent consultations with their caucuses in addition to public meetings announced by Internet postings and emails.
"My commitment with the beginning of this is to be working deliberately, steadily but in a manner that allows the public and ourselves and our fellow legislators in this building to follow our thought process and what we're doing," Hawker said before declaring a recess so he could huddle with Senate members of the committee.
The Senate sent three members of its Finance Committee to the panel:
• Republican Kevin Meyer of Anchorage, co-chairman of the Finance Committee and leader of the three-member Senate cadre. Meyer said after the first committee meeting that some senators think they could be finished Tuesday but Wednesday was more likely.
• Republican Mike Dunleavy of Wasilla, a freshman who has spent most of his professional life in education. Dunleavy has been pushing hard to keep special programs in the bill, such as those expanding home schooling, charter schools, tax breaks for those who donate to private schools and new technology efforts.
• Democrat Lyman Hoffman of Bethel, one of those who believes the committee could finish in a day. Hoffman will want to keep items in the Senate bill related to rural schools, such as a plan to wire all Alaska schools with broadband Internet.
The other House members are:
• Republican Lynn Gattis of Wasilla, a freshman who chairs the House Education Committee and has been arguing to preserve tea party-backed language from the House bill that rejects adoption of the national Common Core Standards and prevents the state from ceding control over educational assessments to the U.S. government or any Outside organization. In both cases, Education Commissioner Michael Hanley told the committee the law was unnecessary because it told his department, "Don't do what you're not doing." Other committee members agreed the directives were superfluous but Gattis said they were important to her caucus.
• Democrat Sam Kito III of Juneau, appointed this session to replace long-serving Beth Kerttula. Kito says he will bring the concerns of his caucus to the committee, including the belief that tax credits for religious schools violate the Alaska Constitution.
The main contentious issue for the committee is the difference in funding between the two bills. The House added $185 to the funding formula for public schools, the base student allocation, in 2015, and another $85 in each of the next two years. The Senate put nothing into the BSA, which hasn't been raised since 2011.
The House also provided a one-time $30 million grant to districts that would be distributed using the BSA formula. The Senate has $100 million in grants in each of the next three years, distributed the same way, plus more money for the programs sought by Dunleavy and Hoffman.
Parents who have coalesced into the advocacy group Great Alaska Schools say both versions are miserly and won't bring back staff laid off in recent years or destined to be laid off in the coming years. They're backed by the Alaska Federation of Natives, which passed a resolution in favor a large BSA and has been calling legislators, and also by members of the Anchorage business community.
Hawker identified the treatment of the high school exit exam as a big difference in the two bills that should be easily resolvable.
The Senate version eliminated the high school exit exam, widely seen as a failure in ensuring that passing students meet a minimum standard. The House version didn't touch the exit exam.
But Hawker noted that a separate bill that passed the House essentially did the same thing as the Senate version of the education bill. There was no reason that the committee couldn't reach a fast compromise by putting the two together, Hawker said. In the afternoon session, they did just that.
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-500-7388.
By RICHARD MAUER