JUNEAU (AP) -- Competing plans for increasing the University of Alaska's budget have emerged in the House and Senate.
Hours after the Senate Finance Committee approved an $8.5 million increase for the university system, the House Finance Committee introduced a bill Thursday to send $34 million to the university over the next two years -- $17 million at a time.
That left a smile on the face of University President Mark Hamilton, whose vigorous demands for a $16.9 million increase and earnest promises to account for its use have swayed members of the Legislature's budget-conscious GOP majority.
''I'm very gratified at this,'' Hamilton told the Juneau Empire. ''People are trying to get us the money.''
Under the House proposal backed by Finance Committee Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, the $34 million increase -- along the $172.3 million the university was already slated to get in the coming fiscal year -- would come from the Constitutional Budget Reserve.
The $2.1 billion reserve is normally used to close the overall gap between the state's budget and its normal revenue.
The university's appropriation is normally contained in that budget, but Mulder's plan would use a separate bill to tap the fund specifically for the university.
That's significant because tapping the reserve takes a three-quarters majority in both the House and the Senate, along with Gov. Tony Knowles' approval.
Building that much consensus can be a tricky political maneuver, but Mulder hopes the popularity of the university to boost the state's economy will carry the day.
''It just makes sense to have everyone on board for something like this,'' Mulder said. ''Alaska's economy is changing. The high-tech jobs should be filled with Alaska kids.''
To pass, the proposal must win support in the Senate, where the Finance Committee passed a competing plan to use money from an education surplus in the current year and proceeds of the state's student loan program to pay for an $8.5 million increase.
''It doesn't have widespread support yet,'' Sen. Sean Parnell, R-Anchorage, chairman of the committee, said of Mulder's plan. ''People are being cautious, but we're welcoming new ideas.''
Bob King, press secretary for Knowles, a Democrat, said the proposal seems to line up with the governor's request for the extra $16.9 million for the university in his budget proposal.
''We'll have to look at this bill more closely before weighing in on the details, but the governor is certainly supportive of funding for the university,'' King said.
A Thursday morning fire claimed the lives of three Nikiski residents.
The fire broke out shortly before 2 a.m. Thursday morning at the trailer house occupied by the Downie family at Space 26 Blue Jay Trailer Court, 44220 Kenai Spur Highway.
Richard Downie, 39, and two sons, Daniel, 11, and Robert, 5, perished in the blaze, which was survived by wife and mother Corrine Downie, 33.
"They had come here to make a new start," said neighbor Tammi Vincent, who worked with other neighbors Thursday afternoon to secure what remained of the home
"They hadn't lived here very long," she said, adding she had heard that Downie had recently found employment. "It's just so sad."
Neighbor Bryan Hinkley made the emergency call.
"(Corrine) was outside, screaming, 'Help us,'" he said.
Dave Robertson, battalion chief for Nikiski Fire Department, was on duty when the call came in at 2:05 a.m.
"We're less than a mile away," he said, referring to Station No. 1's proximity to the trailer court. "We were on location within three minutes. By the time we got there the home was fully involved."
An Alaska State Troopers press release said initial investigation revealed that after having been awakened by smoke alarms, Corrine and Richard Downie were able to exit the home safely. Richard Downie then reportedly returned to remove their two children.
Fire engines from Nikiski and Kenai Fire departments responded. Nikiski also had two tankers, a rescue truck and two ambulances on the scene. A total of 21 emergency personnel, including two from Kenai, worked quickly.
While flames consumed the front of the residence, firefighters fought their way to the back door. Hampered by snow, response personnel broke through the back door using axes, according to Robertson.
Both Downie and his 5-year-old son were found in the back of the trailer. Although that part of the home was untouched by flames, Robertson reported it was filled with smoke and intense heat.
The 11-year-old son was found closer to the front of the residence.
Robertson said emergency response personnel finally cleared the scene at approximately 6 a.m.
State Fire Marshal Carol Olson MacDonald was notified of the fire at her Anchorage home at 3 a.m. Thursday morning. By 8 a.m. she had arrived at the residence and had begun her investigation.
By midafternoon, Wilkinson said the possibility of foul play had been eliminated.
"(The investigation) has determined the fire began in the living room next to the couch," said Wilkinson. "It was either electrical or smoking material related."
He also said that contrary to earlier reports, smoke alarms had failed to work.
"There was no escape route from the house because the back door was buried in snow," Wilkinson said. "And fire made passage out through the front door difficult.
"It's one of those terrible things where you have to make sure you have an additional escape route and that your family knows about it and practices it."
The investigation is continuing.
"This is one of those things that will take several days to piece together," said firefighter Robertson.
North Star Elementary School, where Daniel had been a sixth-grader, initiated its critical incident plan early Thursday morning in response to the loss of this student and friend.
"Everyone is talking about what a wonderful influence he was," said Donna Peterson, superintendent of schools for the Kenai Peninsula Borough. "Everything we're hearing is what a wonderful child he was."
Peterson, who was on hand at North Star on Thursday, sent a letter home to parents of the school's students, providing information on the incident and notifying families of services available to help both students and parents cope with the loss.
"Please know that help is available at the school should you or your child need assistance," the letter read, listing the school psychologist and the school nurse as contacts.
Less than a mile away, the sign in front of Nikiski Fire Department's Station No. 1 displayed a haunting message.
"Know two ways out."
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