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Senate committee cuts deeper into education funding

JUNEAU -- The Senate Finance Committee on Thursday cut 4 percent from Alaska's per-pupil school funding formula, saying it was forced to do so after a sharp drop in the price of oil that has opened a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

The cut, proposed through a budget amendment by Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, and Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, amounts to $47.5 million.

The total state education budget would drop 7 percent if the Senate's budget proposal is added to previous cuts already proposed by Gov. Bill Walker and the state House.

"We've never been in fiscal times like this, and nothing can be beyond scrutiny," Kelly said during the finance committee's hearing Thursday afternoon.

Kelly, a co-chair of the committee, added in a news conference after the hearing that "education can't remain out of the cuts because it's too big a piece" of the state's budget.

The education cuts come as part of the finance committee's full budget package, which slices $470 million, or 10.5 percent, in unrestricted general fund spending by state agencies.

The $4 billion spending plan is about $100 million below the budget approved by the House and $220 million below the budget proposed by Gov. Bill Walker, according to a legislative analysis.

The proposed cuts still have to be approved by the full Senate, and if the final result differs from the House version, as is all but certain, members from both chambers will have to negotiate to reconcile the two budgets. The House version left the per-pupil funding untouched.

Members of one grass roots education advocacy group, Great Alaska Schools Anchorage, called Thursday's move by the Senate Finance Committee unexpected and heartbreaking.

"We're absolutely shocked," said one member of the group, Alyse Galvin. "We did not expect this."

The group pushed hard for an increase in per-pupil funding last legislative session. While it didn't get all that it asked for, the Legislature did add money inside and outside the funding formula for three years.

Great Alaska Schools held a rally in downtown Anchorage on Wednesday, saying the Legislature should keep its promises. Galvin said that if Alaska wants to expand its economy, it must expand its own workforce and that starts in schools.

"We think that our state is better than this and we certainly hope that the rest of the Senate will see the error of its ways," she said.