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Update: Legislature to address education today

Posted: April 21, 2014 - 6:40am  |  Updated: April 21, 2014 - 10:23am

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — After blowing past midnight on what was supposed to be the last day of session Sunday, Alaska lawmakers planned to plow ahead Monday to resolve their differences on education.

The House and Senate each adjourned after 4 a.m. Monday following a day of fits and starts that saw all but two of the major pieces in play — education and the capital budget — pass. Lawmakers decided in the interest of good public policy to try to get some rest and return later in the day to try to wrap things up. That includes Senate debate on House Bill 278, its rewrite of Gov. Sean Parnell's omnibus education bill.

The House and Senate took very different approaches to the education bill and additional proposed funding for schools in the waning days of session. House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said there wasn't agreement on a total dollar amount but expected it would be around $100 million. One of the points of contention, though, was how much should go into the per-student funding formula.

Senate Rules Committee Chair Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said that issue would probably be left to House and Senate negotiators to decide.

"I'm hopeful they're going to come up with a good compromise tomorrow, with a little rest," she said.

Lawmakers knew that if they extended beyond the statutory 90-day session, the placement of initiatives on this year's ballot could be affected. Alaska's primary date moved up a week, to Aug. 19 this year, under a bill passed last session. Legislative attorney Alpheus Bullard, in a memo last month to Senate Minority Leader Hollis French, said if the session lasts beyond 90 days, the three initiatives slated to appear on the primary ballot will get bumped to the next statewide election. A special legislative session, if called instead, would not affect the placement of the initiatives, he said.

"We'd like to get out of here," Chenault said. He blamed the Senate for dragging its feet on passing bills the last few days.

He said the House probably only had about two Senate bills left. "We have done the work that we'd agreed to do. They just haven't done the same," he said.

McGuire said the Senate worked as hard as it could, and it wouldn't have been her choice to go beyond the 90-day session limit.

Sunday, what was supposed to be the last day of session, was marked by delayed meetings and leadership talks. A group of Alaska Natives gathered for a sit-in outside McGuire's office, calling for Senate passage of a bill that would symbolically make Alaska Native languages official languages of the state. They later moved to the second floor, where the House and Senate chambers are. The pulsating beat of the drums they played reverberating through the tension-filled hallway, and they filled the Senate gallery, waiting until the bill was brought up around 3 a.m. They broke into applause upon the bill's passage.

The day began with the House Finance Committee meeting briefly on the capital budget, which was expected to include additional education funding. The bill didn't emerge until early Monday morning and the education funding wasn't in it. But, Co-chairman Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, said he expected that to be added on the House floor.

In-between trying to make headway on education, lawmakers moved other major pieces of legislation, including the operating budget and bills to advance a major liquefied natural gas project and address the state's pension obligation; they took up other bills, too, including one to provide tax credits to in-state refiners and an omnibus crime bill.

Gov. Sean Parnell, who met with legislative leaders in an effort to try to bring them together, said both sides had done a lot of good work and all involved wanted to wrap things up as soon as possible.

"We all have worked hard for new educational opportunity, new funding for education and moving on those other priorities," he said, referring to the gas line and pension bills.

The House, in its rewrite of Parnell's education bill, HB278, increased the per-student funding formula by about $300 over three years, in addition to providing $30 million in one-time aid to be split among districts outside the formula.

The Senate Finance Committee proposed $100 million in additional school aid outside the formula for each of the next three years. That was on top of support for other initiatives and programs such as charter, residential and correspondence schools. The $100 million was not attached to the committee's version of HB278, and Co-chairman Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, had expected it to be attached to a budget bill.

Groups like the parent-supported Great Alaska Schools, Alaska Federation of Natives and NEA-Alaska called for an increase in funding through the formula over what the House proposed, as a way to help districts stave off cuts and be able to plan ahead better. Becca Bernard with Great Alaska Schools likened the Senate approach to someone in a financial pinch getting a onetime bonus when they need a permanent raise.

There have been discussions off and on this session about the funding formula, which some lawmakers believe is broken or overdue for another look. The Senate Finance version of the education bill called for a study of how the state funds education.

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