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Alaska Legislature’s end-of-session fight zeroes in on increases to schools spending

JUNEAU — The Alaska Legislature's end-of session negotiations today are zeroing in on state spending on public schools.

The largely-Democratic House majority and the Republican-led Senate majority, in meetings Friday, advanced competing plans to boost education spending.

Schools spending, set preliminarily at $1.25 billion this year, is the largest single line item in the state's $4.5 billion annual operating budget.

The House majority is pushing legislation to permanently increase Alaska's per-student spending level, known as the base student allocation. The allocation was the same this year and last year, and school districts say they're struggling to maintain programs amid rising health care and other inflation-driven costs.

Midday Friday, the full House was debating House Bill 339 from Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara, which would boost the per-student formula by $100, to $6,030 — an increase of 1.7 percent.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara leans back in his chair to talk with Juneau Democratic Rep. Justin Parish on the House floor Friday, April 13, 2018 at the Alaska Capitol in Juneau. House members were debating legislation to increase Alaska’s per-student formula for schools spending. (Nathaniel Herz / ADN)

The Senate Finance Committee, meanwhile, advanced a new draft of legislation that passed the House earlier this year.

The legislation, House Bill 287, separates Alaska's schools spending from the Legislature's full annual budget proposal.

House majority members wanted to pass the bill before the annual budget, to give Alaska school districts more time to draft their own spending plans. The Legislature's delays in passing a budget in the past three years have forced some districts to issue layoff notices to teachers, then — in some cases — revoke them.

But for two months, the Senate Finance Committee held the legislation without taking action.

About 200 people gathered at the Legislative Information Offices to advocate for increased funding for Anchorage schools in Anchorage, AK on Friday April 13, 2018. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

Last week, the Senate committee rewrote the bill to match the House's proposed schools budget for next year, which currently lacks an increase to the per-student formula.

Then, senators added a new provision to set aside the same amount of cash for schools in the following year — but only if the House also approves a separate proposal from the Senate to use investment earnings from the $64 billion Permanent Fund to help balance the state's huge deficit.

On Friday, the Senate Finance Committee released another draft of the bill. The new version includes an extra $30 million for schools in the second year, which equates to a $117 bump in the per-student formula, according to senators.

The increase effectively matches the House's proposal to boost the formula itself, with a key distinction: The $30 million is a one-time grant that would disappear from the state budget the following year without action from legislators.

Why did the committee propose a one-time boost instead of an adjustment to the formula?

Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon stands during a break from the Senate’s floor session at the Alaska Capitol in Juneau on Friday, April 13, 2018, with Soldotna Republican Sen. Peter Micciche on the right. (Nathaniel Herz / ADN)

"It doesn't embed it in the foundation," said Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon, one of the committee's co-chairs.

MacKinnon said she doesn't think there's support in her chamber for increasing the per-student formula.

The two chambers' positions on education spending will figure into the end-of-session negotiations between legislative leaders and Gov. Bill Walker.

A 2006 citizens initiative limited sessions to 90 days, but lawmakers routinely ignore that deadline. Legislative leaders said Friday that they expect to be in Juneau past Sunday, the 90th day.

This is a breaking news story. Check back for updates.

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