Lawmakers spar over mandatory borough bill

Posted: Thursday, February 01, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- A proposal that could force some areas of the state to organize into new boroughs and tax residents prompted polite sparring in a Senate committee Wednesday in what could be a preview of a long and bitter fight.

Sen. Gary Wilken sponsored Senate Bill 48 as a way to get people in the unorganized areas of the state to pay taxes to support schools that now get nearly all of their money from the state.

''The new borough residents will have an opportunity to improve their own education system with their own local dollars,'' said Wilken, R-Fairbanks. ''I also believe that if you write a check every year ... you also worry about whether a school is falling apart.''

Wilken's bill is the latest variation on a long-running quest by some urban lawmakers to make residents of unorganized areas contribute to school funding. The state spent more than $121 million last year on schools where no local taxes were collected.

Representatives from the Bush argue that those areas have little to tax and worry that the state money that now flows to their districts' schools would be diverted to urban districts.

''I haven't heard anybody say that we don't want to go into the boroughs because somebody else is paying the tab for us,'' said Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, D-Rampart, who represents a sprawling rural district larger than the state of Texas.

The bill, which remained in the Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee, doesn't arbitrarily impose borough status on the vast unorganized areas of Alaska. Instead, it makes a crucial change to the process that currently allows areas to become boroughs -- local voters would no longer weigh in on whether the proposed borough should incorporate.

Under Wilken's bill, the Department of Community and Economic Development would annually review unorganized areas and develop a list of those that warrant incorporation into new boroughs or annexation into existing boroughs.

The Local Boundary Commission would analyze the nominations, hold public hearings, and recommend incorporations and annexations to the Legislature, which would have final say.

Most of the states' residents live in boroughs formed without voter approval by the Legislature in the 1960s. Local voters have created only a handful of boroughs since, some to take advantage of the opportunity to levy taxes on large commercial enterprises such as the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, some to forestall the threat of annexation by other boroughs.

Wilken's bill has the support of the Local Boundary Commission and at least one of the framers of the Alaska Constitution, who envisioned that the entire state would eventually be divided into boroughs.

''The Constitutional Convention had in mind that upon statehood, there would be a gradual evolution of local government,'' said former Sen. Vic Fischer, D-Anchorage, a delegate to the convention. But Fischer said local residents' reluctance to organize led the Legislature to force them into existence.

''No area seemed eager to organize and go out and tax themselves when they could get education and other services provided by the state,'' Fischer said.

He praised Wilken's bill and urged lawmakers to pursue more organized boroughs in a fair manner.

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