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Panel advances education amendment bill

Posted: February 5, 2014 - 10:49pm

JUNEAU — The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday advanced a proposed constitutional amendment that supporters say could open the door to more choice in education but critics fear could hurt public schools.

SJR9, from Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, would strike a provision in the state constitution prohibiting use of public funds for the direct benefit of private and religious schools. It also would add, in a section of the constitution that says public money cannot be appropriated except for a public purpose, that nothing in that section shall prevent payment of public funds “for the direct educational benefit of students as provided by law.”

The committee heard hours of testimony Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, during a break in hearing other education bills, committee co-chair Kevin Meyer said there had been a lot of discussion, and he didn’t believe the committee needed to hear any more.

Meyer, R-Anchorage, said public comments — which he described as pretty balanced overall — had continued to come in. He said he didn’t have any problems advancing the measure and letting Dunleavy continue his efforts to get SJR9 to the Senate floor for a vote.

Meyer, Dunleavy and Sens. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, and Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River, recommended the full Senate pass the proposal. Kelly and Fairclough are co-sponsors.

Sens. Donny Olson, D-Golovin; Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, and Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, made no recommendation, according to the Legislature’s website.

SJR9 was sent to the Senate Rules Committee, which is responsible for the Senate’s daily calendar. Bills and resolutions often aren’t brought to the floor for debate unless the votes are there to pass them.

SJR9 would have to pass with a two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate to qualify for the ballot.

Senate Education Committee chairman Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said the measure will probably stay in Rules if and until the 14 needed votes are secured. He expects it will be very hard to get those votes and said his feeling right now is it probably won’t happen.

“But that’s up to the folks pushing it, to see what they can do,” he said.

Dunleavy, for his part, is optimistic.

Stevens said he does not support the proposal, saying he’s concerned with the long-term implications. He also said without enabling legislation spelling out what the change would mean it’s “a little frightening, because you have no idea what you’re voting for, really.”

Dunleavy plans to push enabling legislation this session, though Meyer has said he doesn’t see taking up a measure like that until voters have a chance to decide any proposed constitutional change.

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