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Legislative committee targets education programs for cuts

  • Author: Pat Forgey
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 25, 2015

JUNEAU -- Big cuts to education programs led budget subcommittee work in the Legislature this week, with Republican legislators saying Gov. Bill Walker has not proposed deep enough cuts to the budget.

A subcommittee reviewing the Department of Education and Early Development budget Tuesday evening cut 19 percent from the unrestricted general funds budget, but did not touch the Base Student Allocation, the per-student amount that provides most education funding in Alaska.

"The goal was to keep classrooms whole and not reach into the BSA because people are counting on that money," said Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, chair of the House Finance Committee's education subcommittee. She said the budget cut she proposed amounted to $13 million and was 16 percent more than Walker had proposed.

The cuts were passed over the objections of two of the seven committee members who are not part of the Republican-led House Majority Caucus, Reps. Sam Kito, D-Juneau, and Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan.

They objected to the cuts and the process that led to them, with Gattis refusing to hear amendments at Tuesday's meeting to the budget she proposed.

Among the programs Gattis' budget ended were Best Beginnings, an early childhood reading program, Parents-as-Teachers, which assists parents with educating their children, the ANSWERS data system program, the Online With Libraries program, the Live Homework Help program, the Statewide Literacy Program, broadband assistance for rural schools and others.

The subcommittee also wanted to eventually end the WWAMI program, which funds medical education at the University of Washington for Alaska residents with the hope that they'll return to Alaska to practice. But that program would be gradually phased out over several years.

The department was also told to eliminate previously approved pay raises, something that may not be possible. The budget adopted by the subcommittee removed the equivalent of 2.5 percent of previously approved raises from the budget.

"In a time of budget reductions, no state employee should be receiving a raise," the committee said.

But Kito said those contracts had already been approved.

"Those contract provisions have to be honored," he said, and leaving the department with inadequate money to pay full salaries will mean jobs will have to be cut to make up the difference.

Many of the cuts were to programs implemented in an effort to help struggling students, particularly in early grades.

Kito objected to targeting cuts there.

"Studies have shown that the best time to impact education is at the early stages," he said.

The subcommittee did not hear from the public about the cuts it was proposing, and Gattis told members that they had been notified earlier that proposed amendments to the budget had to have been received by her office by last Friday, and none had been received.

Kito said that gave members only two hours to see what had been cut, which was not enough time to research the impact of the cuts and draft amendments. Further, he said, there were changes made to the draft budget he'd been shown Friday.

But Gattis objected to Kito seeking explanations in the meeting or his offering support for several programs that had been cut.

"This will be a long night," she said, if Kito was to get an explanation for all the cuts.

Gov. Walker had cut $2 million from $5 million sought to improve broadband access for rural schools, but Gattis' budget cut the remaining $3 million as well.

Without that, Kito said, students in rural areas can't get the same education as everyone else.

"The idea is to try and provide adequate access to rural communities so they can participate in the education process," he said.

He was joined in supporting that by Ortiz and Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, but Gattis told them that they could try to have the money restored when the budget goes to the full House Finance Committee.

"They are very pro-broadband, and I get that," she said. "In the budget that we have, it's going to hurt all of us."

Kito said he was not on that committee, but was on the subcommittee considering the budget Tuesday. Gattis responded that he could get someone on the finance committee to propose the change for him. Increasing broadband access in schools has been a major issue for two rural-district senators on the Senate Finance Committee, Lyman Hoffman of Bethel and Donny Olson of Nome.

Ortiz said he was frustrated by the process, and the lack of time to provide any meaningful response to the proposal.

"The cuts that need to be made, need to be smart cuts," he said. "This is an economic investment that we are making in the future of our workforce."