Knowles asks bitter rival to withdraw school funding bill

Posted: Sunday, February 25, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Calling the idea inflammatory and hostile, Gov. Tony Knowles is asking one of his most bitter political rivals to withdraw a bill that would pull millions of dollars in state aid and local taxes out of the North Slope Borough and redistribute it to school districts elsewhere in the state.

Knowles, who initially took no position on the bill when Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell, introduced it last week, apparently got an earful from leaders on the North Slope this week at the Arctic Economic Development Summit in Barrow.

''They told me they see your bill as a direct threat to their kids' opportunity for success and ability to compete for jobs,'' the Democratic governor wrote in a letter to Taylor. ''They said they were distraught and couldn't understand how someone they had never met or talked with could decide that such a bill is a reasonable approach to school funding.''

Taylor -- whose bid to oust Knowles from the Governor's Mansion in 1998 failed when he lost the Republican primary -- read the letter on the Senate floor Thursday with sarcastic relish -- saying it was the first personal note Knowles had ever sent him.

''Because they're one of the richest tax bases in the state, maybe they should share with the poorest tax bases in the state,'' Taylor said.

Taylor's bill would remove a part of the state's education funding formula that lets local school districts contribute 45 percent of their basic educational need to their schools instead of the equivalent of a 4-mill property tax. Because the North Slope Borough taxes billions of dollars worth of oil and gas infrastructure, 45 percent of its basic education need is much smaller than a 4-mill tax, which would more than cover the district's entire education budget.

The change would eliminate the $13.3 million the district gets from the state. A separate provision would force the borough to pay about $22.9 million of its local property taxes -- the difference between 4 mills and its basic need -- to the state.

Taylor pointed out that nearly every other community in Alaska pays at least 4 mills and often more for education.

''On the North Slope Borough, they're paying less than 2 mills for education,'' Taylor said.

Taylor's bill also contains elements designed to build support from other areas of the state.

It would repeal the so-called ''eroding floor'' installed in Senate Bill 36, which pays some rural districts only 60 percent of their current state aid for new students and could reduce per-student aid in future years. Eliminating that provision is a high priority of Knowles and many rural lawmakers.

The bill also adds $17.4 million earmarked for vocational education, and increases the per-student amount of money that goes into the formula from $3,940 to $4,150 -- an increase of about $45.4 million statewide, Taylor said.

It also contains a change in the formula that would bring about $600,000 more to Wrangell and Petersburg, areas of Taylor's district that suffered in the 1998 rewrite.

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