Wagoner: Education bill has too much pork in it

Posted: Sunday, March 21, 2004

Sen. Tom Wagoner on Friday accused the House of sending a Senate bill meant to increase funding for education back to the Senate accompanied by $15 million in pork that has no business being attached to the education bill, he said.

Wagoner said it highlighted how important it was to consider a constitutional spending limit.

"Instead of biting the bullet, their budget had to spend another $15 million in pork," Wagoner said.

The version of Senate Bill 283 returned by the House to the Senate on March 8 did include almost $10 million for small projects mostly in rural districts represented by House Democrats, plus another $4.4 million in power-cost equalization funding.

However, House members said Senate Bill 283 was no longer simply an education bill, but a package of spending that includes a commitment by House Democrats to vote with the Republican majority to tap the Constitutional Budget Reserve account to balance both the current fiscal year 2004 budget and the coming fiscal year 2005 spending plan.

"We feel very comfortable" with the House version, said Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, on Friday. He called the Senate's complaints about the rewrite "just a wrong analysis" of what is going on.

"This is a mechanism for funding the entire budget," he said. "If this were just an education bill and there were these things put on it, I would have opposed it."

The House passed its version unanimously, an indication of the level of compromise and commitment among House members, Seaton said.

Wagoner acknowledged that part of the overall increase proposed by the House represented an increase to education over the Senate version.

"All the rest of it was a list of small projects for the Bush," he said.

He named two of particular interest, including $3.4 million for the city of Shishmaref for erosion control, and $100,000 for a bulldozer for the unincorporated community of Rampart. He said it might have been better to give the bulldozer to Shishmaref "and let them do their own erosion control."

Shishmaref is facing serious erosion from the sea and there are proposals to move the village. Wagoner questioned the wisdom of spending $3.4 million on erosion control if the town eventually will be moved.

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said he felt good about the education package. The Senate version had proposed $407 per-student increase in the foundation formula. The House version pushes that to $419 per student. Stevens said he liked that the House had raised the Senate's ante.

"I hope in the end we will take the House education funding proposal," he said.

"As for the "pork," Stevens said, "You can be indignant about it, but that's the way the session always ends. To get the minority support for the majority vote (to tap the CBR) it always costs us something. It's not perfect, but it works."

"This was not an education vote," Seaton said. "This was for the entire budget."

House Republicans saw the importance of giving House Democrats some comfort level beyond a mere promise that high-priority capital projects in their districts would not be ignored in the final version of the fiscal year 2005 budget, he said.

"I mean, $3.4 million of it is to keep a village from falling into the ocean," he said. "These are not projects that are all outside the top priorities of those communities."

Among the list of projects besides those for Shishmaref and Rampart are $1 million for Yuut Elitnauriviat Inc. to design a job training facility; $779,600 for the city of Dillingham for school roof repairs; $314,000 to the city of Angoon for city dock and boat harbor repairs; $50,000 for the city of Skagway for construction of a seawall; $20,000 to Naukati West for construction of a fire hall-public safety building; $750,000 to the Municipality of Anchorage for transportation and other capital projects; and $150,000 to the city of Togiak for purchase of search and rescue equipment.

The list also includes a number of construction, renovation, design and enhancement projects for community halls, teen centers and heritage centers.

The final budget bill would be expected to include numerous capital projects in districts represented by Republicans.

Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, House Minority Leader, called SB 283 a "mini budget bill" that includes $88 million in the so-called "reverse sweep" that puts money back into various accounts. It also includes university funding, retirement funding, education funding and capital projects, all in exchange for a commitment to two year's of Democratic support for tapping the CBR. He said the capital projects listed were projects that had been promised for a long time.

As to the Senate's apparent displeasure, he said it was ironic that adding important capital projects to the spending measure should be seen as negative in a state that "praises Sen. Ted Stevens for bringing money in" money Congressional critics have also labeled "pork."

Berkowitz suggested Wagoner should "spend more time in rural Alaska," where he could see firsthand the needs in those communities.

He also noted that Gov. Frank Murkowski was supportive of many of the projects.

Berkowitz said the House is trying to be bipartisan and that would build the trust needed to put together a final fiscal package. He said the House had "found a way to put down our swords and stop glaring across the aisle at each other."

Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, agrees.

"It is fair to say there is substantial disagreement between the Senate and the House over whether we should be closing out this large a portion of the budget at this time," Hawker said. "I firmly believe the compromise in the House bill (version) that secured two CBR votes from the Minority basically solved our school funding crisis while including some $10 million in unique capital projects in various parts of the state was a very fair and reasonable solution."

Of the education funding portion of the bill, Hawker said the House had been looking at a total of about $89 million, but settled on $86 million, which was still a bit higher than proposed in the Senate. He said the increase in the foundation formula written into the House version would virtually wipe out the deficits in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Municipality of Anchorage school districts.

Hawker chalked up the discomfort expressed by Wagoner and other Senate Republicans over the House move to ego. He said the Senate had failed to find compromise that would lead to a CBR vote in the Senate, while the House was successful.

Hawker also said past budget compromises required to get Democrats' CBR votes have amounted to "hundreds of millions of dollars."

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