Senate GOP brushes aside Democrats' amendments, passes budget

Posted: Thursday, April 06, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- Brushing aside Democrats' pleas for more money for education, the University of Alaska, village public safety officers and public defenders, the Republican-controlled Senate passed its version of the operating budget Thursday.

The spending bill for the fiscal year that begins July 1 spends $22.7 million less from the state's general fund than the current year's budget, according to the Legislative Finance Division.

''This is about funding our priorities,'' said Senate Finance Committee Co-Chairman Sean Parnell. ''Is everybody happy? Absolutely not.''

Parnell, R-Anchorage, cited ways that the committee had been able to send more money to key areas such as education and the university without increasing general fund spending. The committee shifted millions of dollars in state Medicaid spending to federal funds, freeing up more money for programs such as foster care, subsidized adoption and child care.

The panel also used a surplus in education funding for the current year to pay for an $8.5 million increase to the University of Alaska and for $5.8 million in special grants to help school districts prepare for the state's new high school exit exam.

Minority Democrats argued that more of the education surplus should have been poured back into basic education, and they criticized Republicans for giving the university only half of the $16.9 million it requested. Without such investment, Minority Leader Johnny Ellis argued, the state risks falling further behind the booming economy of the Lower 48.

''Some fear Alaska becoming the Appalachia of the north,'' said Ellis, D-Anchorage.

However, the debate over the budget was milder and shorter than in prior years. The minority offered only five amendments, which were all rejected 15-5 by the dominant Republican majority.

The biggest fight was over the way the $5.8 million in grants to school districts will be allocated.

The Senate's budget would essentially send each school district $43.75 for each student.

However, the state's normal aid to school districts is distributed using a complex formula that sends more money to rural districts to compensate for the higher cost of operating schools in the Bush.

Rural Democrats argued the $5.8 million should have been run through the same formula because students in the Bush are expected to have more problems with the test.

''We need to show fairness in education, no matter where you live, whether in rural Alaska or urban Alaska,'' said Sen. Al Adams, D-Kotzebue. As the lone Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Adams had initially supported the budget, but changed his mind when he saw the impact of bypassing the formula.

Without the formula, Anchorage stands to get $2.1 million of the grants, while Fairbanks would receive $682,000, according to the Department of Education and Early Development. The remote Lower Kuskokwim School District in Western Alaska would get $169,444.

With the formula, Anchorage would get $292,138 less, Fairbanks would lose $68,686, and Lower Kuskokwim would gain $108,705.

Majority Republicans contend the differing costs of operating schools are already covered by the state's regular education spending.

''It's a one-time appropriation for a specific purpose,'' Wilken said. ''Because of that, it falls outside the foundation formula.''

An amendment earmarking $600,000 for pay raises for village public safety officers also failed. Sen. Georgianna Lincoln argued for a raise as a way to reduce high turnover among VPSOs, who are often the only law enforcement officer serving rural areas.

''We pay them so low that they're eligible for welfare, which is wrong when they're our first line of defense,'' Lincoln said.

Parnell said he was reluctant to pay for an increase because the Native corporations that operate the VPSO program under contracts with the state could take the money to pay for overhead costs instead of passing it to the officers.

Democrats also failed in their attempt to add $755,200 to the budget of the public defender's office. The agency has been chronically short-funded in recent years, forcing it to go back to the Legislature for more money late in the fiscal year.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, pointed to a recent legislative audit indicating that the agency's lawyers routinely worked more than 20 hours a week of unpaid overtime.

But Wilken said the public defender was already slated to receive a $250,000 increase, and said he had offered to work with the Department of Administration to make the agency more efficient.

The budget passed 12-8, with three Republicans joining minority Democrats.

Sen. Randy Phillips, R-Eagle River, said he opposed the bill because it doesn't cut enough to meet the majority's goal of a $30 million reduction in general fund spending and doesn't reduce the overall budget at all.

Counting federal money and other state funds, the budget would spend about $6.6 billion, compared to $6.4 billion in the current year. Most of the increase is related to the Alaska Permanent Fund's dividend and inflation-proofing.

The budget now returns to the House, which passed its own version last month. Both sides will likely reject the other's changes, and differences will be worked out in a joint conference committee.

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