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Alaska Legislature

Schools showdown grows more likely as Legislature, governor disagree on funding

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: May 11, 2019
  • Published May 10, 2019

Members of the coalition House majority are seen during a press conference Friday, May 10, 2019 in the Alaska State Capitol. (James Brooks / ADN)

JUNEAU — The Alaska Legislature remained on a collision course with Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Friday as members of a House-Senate budget conference committee began approving a budget for the Department of Education and Early Development that does not include funding for K-12 education.

Members of the House and Senate majority say they intend to abide by legislation passed last year that funds schools in advance. The governor, backed by a new legal opinion from the state attorney general, says that legislation is illegal and budgetary action is needed this year.

There is little time left to resolve the disagreement: The legislative session is scheduled to adjourn Wednesday, and Dunleavy press secretary Matt Shuckerow said that if the legislature proceeds with its plans, the administration does not believe it can send state money to public schools after June 30.

The governor is asking lawmakers to put K-12 funding into this year’s budget and not rely on legislation passed last year. Lawmakers don’t see the need.

“The Legislature forward-funded K-12: The (base student allocations) plus the $30 million increase on top of that a year ago, and the Legislature is not currently, to my knowledge, planning on changing that position,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, referring to the Base Student Allocation, the state’s K-12 funding formula.

Stedman is one of six members of the joint House-Senate conference committee tasked with compromising different state operating budgets for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Lawmakers have rejected broad cuts to state services proposed by Dunleavy earlier this year but disagree about particular details, including the amount of this year’s Permanent Fund dividend.

The leaders of the House and Senate agree, however, that funding for K-12 schools should be kept steady, with a one-time $30 million boost approved last year. The goal is to prevent schools from laying off teachers amid budget uncertainty.

Because lawmakers have agreed to a certain level of state support for school districts, those districts can set their own budgets more accurately and do not need to plan for a worst-case scenario. In recent years, delays in setting K-12 funding have meant that school districts have had to lay off teachers because they do not know whether they will have enough money to keep them on staff.

The governor’s administration contends that lawmakers’ action is illegal because the Legislature did not have cash in hand. By appropriating money in 2018 for the 2020 school year, the attorney general argues in the newly released opinion, lawmakers violated the clause in the state constitution that prohibits dedicated funds.

Members of the Republican House minority have argued in support of the governor’s position.

The conference committee is scheduled to meet again Saturday. In other business Friday, it agreed to fully fund public radio and television for the 2020 fiscal year and turned down cuts to Serve Alaska, a program that organizes volunteers for the national AmeriCorps effort.