Three Republicans change school budget vote under pressure

Posted: Monday, March 12, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Three Republicans reversed their votes and helped defeat an education funding increase Sunday after the chairman of the House Finance Committee called an abrupt halt in the meeting and pulled them into a closed-door meeting.

Reps. Bill Hudson, R-Juneau, Jim Whitaker, R-Fairbanks, and Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna, all initially supported a Democratic proposal to add $1.46 million to the Department of Education and Early Development's pupil transportation program. The amendment, offered by Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, would have fully paid for the state's reimbursement of local school districts' transportation costs.

Without the money, Croft argued, the districts would have to cover some of the transportation costs with money they could better use elsewhere.

''If they have to pay for it, they can't pay for something else -- teachers, pencils, heat,'' Croft said.

The three Republicans, who had voted with the GOP majority on the committee to oppose a dozen other Democratic attempts to increase education spending, joined the minority to pass the amendment 6-5. The vote, an unusual occurrence known as ''rolling the chairman,'' prompted Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage, to call an abrupt recess. As he left the room, Mulder clapped Hudson on the shoulder and motioned brusquely for Whitaker to follow him into a closed-door meeting.

About 15 minutes later, the panel reconvened, and the Republicans changed their votes, saying Mulder had advised them of a tactical issue.

''There was strategy I wasn't aware of,'' said Lancaster.

The lawmakers would not elaborate, although Mulder could be involved with negotiations with the Senate on how to pay for pupil transportation.

''If you play all your cards right up front, the end can get pretty ugly,'' Mulder said. ''Are we all committed to trying to find funding for pupil transportation? Absolutely.''

The reversal prompted a storm of protest from the Democrats, who accused the Republicans of violating the state's open meetings law by making significant public policy decision in private.

''The public get to hear everything except when it really matters, and that's what I'm afraid just happened,'' Croft said. ''The situation is exactly as it was 20 minutes ago. The same students need the same money and the same districts will be hurt.''

A seething Rep. John Davies condemned the entire budget-writing process as rigged and driven by closed-door meetings. Budget subcommittees operate under spending caps set in secret by Mulder and other GOP leaders, and members of the GOP majority are bound to support the budget on the House floor. The Finance Committee, he said, is supposed to be the forum for open debate on the budget.

''When is it that members of this committee get to vote their full consciences?'' demanded Davies, D-Fairbanks.

The second time around, the amendment failed 3-8, with only Croft, Davies and Carl Moses, D-Unalaska, in support.

Mulder, Hudson, Whitaker and Lancaster defended the closed-door meeting as a legitimate caucus strategy session exempt from the open meetings law.

''No vote was taken, this was strictly a conversation that dealt primarily with strategy,'' Hudson said.

Mulder invoked the midnight budget sessions of past years, when new versions of bills appeared as if by magic late at night, and defended his own practices as relatively open and tolerant of dissent.

''I've allowed a lot more latitude than most of my predecessors,'' Mulder said.

Earlier in Sunday's session, the committee approved an amendment sponsored by Mulder that would pump another $1 million into pupil transportation.

After two long days of public testimony and two days of debate over amendments, the state's operating budget is tentatively scheduled to reach the House floor on Tuesday.

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