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Senate is only thing standing between Alaskans and a fiscal plan

  • Author:
  • Updated: April 18
  • Published April 18

The Alaska Senate is gambling on education, not with its Permanent Fund dividend lottery, but with its far more risky plan to cut education spending by about $93 million.

This includes $71 million for school programs from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade and $22 million for the University of Alaska.

I don't think this is what lottery promoter Sen. Click Bishop had in mind when he said, "Alaskans have a long history of involvement with games of chance and gambling."

The Senate plan for "right-size government" isn't based on an analysis of what young people need to succeed in the challenging world that confronts them. Nor have the senators taken a look at the odds that Alaska will fail to prepare a competitive workforce.

Rather, the Senate is taking a chance on numbers picked out of the air with no regard for the impact on young people, the economy or Alaska's future. The proposal stems largely from the refusal to talk about taxes.

Education is the single most expensive state service and therefore the easiest target for the Senate, which is the only thing standing between Alaskans and a balanced fiscal plan.

It would be up to individual school districts and the UA Board of Regents to put the cuts into effect, allowing senators to disclaim responsibility for increasing class sizes, cutting hundreds of more jobs, eliminating programs at the university and making it harder to earn a college degree.

For Anchorage alone, the Senate plan would mean a K-12 cut of about $25 million and the loss of 250 to 300 positions, according to Jim Anderson, chief financial officer of the Anchorage School District. He said 90 percent of the budget goes toward personnel.

The House has proposed a dividend cut, an income tax and a small increase in oil taxes. A married couple earning $100,000 with two children would pay nearly $1,500 in taxes, while collecting about $4,000 in Permanent Fund dividends. A single person earning $100,000 would pay about $2,800 in taxes and get a dividend of about $1,000.

No one is wild about an income tax or a dividend cut, but the status quo can't continue. The Senate supports a dividend cut and dreams of a tax-free future financed by Permanent Fund earnings and imaginary budget cuts.

The House wants a "whopping income tax bill," says Senate President Pete Kelly, but it is a real whopper to make that claim about what would be the fourth-lowest state income tax in the U.S.

As is clear from a close look at the numbers, the "complete solution" advertised by the Senate is neither, as it would rely on moving money into different accounts and create a gaping deficit in future years. Those who say that billions in savings can be used over the next decade to cover long-term deficits would place the generations that follow at a grave disadvantage.

The House won't accept the Senate education cuts and will push to reverse them. In the end, the goal of the extreme stand taken by the Senate is to make a compromise education reduction seem palatable.

This myopic process would lead to lower enrollment at the university at a time when ending formal education in the 12th grade is beyond foolish.

"If the Senate's number passes, the university will have taken a $75 million, or 19.8 percent, reduction over the past four years," said UA President Jim Johnsen. "The Senate's cut would be devastating to the university."

It would send a message to young people and to young families to look for a future somewhere other than the 49th state.

If the Senate wants to limit opportunities for Alaska, these cuts are the perfect way to get 'er done.

The more Senate leaders say they need to cut education because the system is failing, the weaker that argument appears.

The pat answer, that average test scores are too low, is one step away from claiming we have to destroy the education system in order to save it. It goes along with the logic that cutting pay and benefits for the teaching profession will attract better teachers.

There are many measures of educational achievement and many reasons why some children fail — starting with whether a child is loved and if the parents have the time, energy and desire to work at it for at least 18 years.  

A lot of this is related to income, family history, parental expectations and the motivation of individual students. In that regard, the chance to earn a scholarship in high school should be a motivating factor.

I take it as a positive sign that Senate leaders have backed off the plan to eliminate the Alaska Performance Scholarship and allow students who earn at least a 3.5 GPA and a high college entrance exam to continue to qualify for $4,755 a year.

Solving the biggest problems with education in Alaska requires more work to improve classroom performance and deal with contributing factors, from domestic violence to alcohol abuse.

It also requires a legislative commitment, one that is missing from the Senate budget.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. 

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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