House Republicans reject Democrat amendments to budget

Posted: Wednesday, April 09, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- The House is poised to approve a fiscal 2004 spending plan that restores more than $50 million in cuts proposed by Gov. Frank Murkowski.

House Republicans met for several hours behind closed doors on Tuesday to hash out an agreement among members of its own caucus on a final plan to send to the Senate.

The measure includes about $20 million more for K-12 schools than first proposed by Murkowski, and a general fund budget for the University of Alaska that provides no increase over the current year's total.

House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said much of the discussion behind closed doors centered around education funding.

House Republicans were split on whether to increase university spending, Coghill said. Murkowski proposed an increase of $10.3 million there.

More money for the university would have sparked a call among GOP lawmakers for more in K-12 spending, Coghill said. Ultimately, Republicans agreed to a proposal crafted by the budget-writing House Finance Committee.

A proposed amendment by Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, to add $10.3 million to the university budget was rejected by a 25-13 vote.

''I can tell you, there are more members in the caucus who would like to vote for it,'' Coghill said. ''(But) we're trying to go very closely with what we had passed out of the finance committee.''

The House also rejected an amendment sought by Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, to increase the school funding formula by $293 per pupil. That proposal was defeated by a 27-11 vote.

Rep Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, tried to muster support for the university funding increase by reminding Republicans that their conscience, and not their caucus, should sway them.

But only two Republicans -- Reps. Hugh ''Bud'' Fate, R-Fairbanks, and Dan Ogg, R-Kodiak -- voted with Democrats on the university increase. The majority caucus agreed beforehand that the pair could vote 'yes' on the amendment, Coghill said.

The House also rejected an amendment proposed by Croft to use about $4 million in the Legislature's surplus funds for other purposes. Also rejected were amendments to cut funds from the governor's office and the attorney's general's office.

The House is expected to take up more proposed amendments from the Democrats, as well as two proposed GOP amendments, when it reconvenes on Wednesday.

House Republicans plan to add $250,000 to the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation to continue operating for at least another year, despite Murkowski's proposal to empty its $87 million endowment. The funding would allow foundation workers to moniter projects alreayd under way, Coghill said.

The House is expected to vote on final passage of the budget Wednesday and send it to the Senate.

With the GOP in control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor's office, the debate this session has centered around making state government live within its means.

In all but two of the past 12 years, lawmakers have drawn from the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve to make up budget shortfalls. The withdrawals over that period totaled about $6 billion

The reserve fund has about $1.9 billion left and is on pace to be depleted within Murkowski's four-year term. The governor's first budget proposal called for cutting state spending by $55 million and drawing $393 million from the reserve account.

He called on lawmakers to approve a plan that spends less and takes no more from the state's reserve account than he has proposed.

The House plan does not accomplish that. And House budget writers have said lower-than-expected oil prices will make his targets difficult to reach, if not impossible.

One of the more contentious proposals by the governor was to cut the senior citizen longevity bonus program to save $47.5 million.

The House budget rejects that deletion, and House leaders say there is not enough support within their caucus to zero out the popular payments to elderly Alaskans.

Senate President Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, said he expects K-12 and university funding, along with the longevity bonus issue, to be the major negotiating points this year.

Senate Republicans are split on university funding but the K-12 proposal offered in the House may be too high, Therriault said.

''I think it'd be fair to portray that where the Senate is likely to come in is somewhere in between,'' Therriault said.



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