House Republicans turn back Democrat amendments

Posted: Thursday, April 10, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- Majority Republicans in the House considering a fiscal 2004 spending plan turned back efforts to spare the state's correspondence school and restore millions in education funding during budget debates on Wednesday.

House Democrats unsucessfully offered an amendment to retain the Alyeska Central School, which would be closed under the budget proposed by Gov. Frank Murkowski.

Closing the correspondence school would save $1.2 million, which amounts to the cost of its summer school program, the administration argued.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, offered an amendment to preserve the program but end its summer school funding. Kerttula said it is the only accredited correspondence school program in the state.

House Finance Co-chairman John Harris, R-Valdez, said other correspondence programs in the state can step in to fill the void. Harris said three school districts are on the verge of getting fully accreditation. The House rejected the amendment 25-13 on a party-line vote.

The House also rejected a proposal by Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, to use part of the state's $1.9 billion Constitutional Budget Reserve to provide more money for schools and the University of Alaska.

It would have provided an increase in education spending over two years, and lessened the power of minority Democrats to influence state spending in future years. That's because it takes a three-quarters majority to tap the reserve.

House Republicans rejected the idea on a 27-12 vote, but Harris said the proposal has merit and may surface later in the session.

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said his caucus sought to win about $80 million in budget increases in return for $60 million in cuts. Other cuts could be achieved by trimming the capital budget, Berkowitz said.

House Republicans did accept an amendment to add $12,000 to the Legislative Ethics Committee budget for office expenses, but otherwise kept the spending plan largely as it was approved in committee.

Berkowitz expressed frustration over the Republican caucus position to retain cuts in education spending and other areas of state government.

''I think it's very difficult for a stampeding herd to change directions,'' Berkowitz said.

The House is poised to approve a $2.3 billion general fund budget that spares few areas of state government from cuts. But it also calls for spending about $50 million more than the budget proposed by Gov. Frank Murkowski.

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.

It also rejects a proposal by Murkowski to eliminate the senior citizen longevity bonus program, which would have saved the state $47.5 million.

Cutting the bonuses drew a firestorm of opposition from seniors and Harris, who chairs the House budget writing committee, said there was no support among those in his caucus for the plan.

But eliminating the payments to seniors of up to $250 a month was an important element of Murkowski's plan to cut state spending by $55 million and lessen the state's draw from its budget reserve.

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 for $6 billion in budget shortfalls. The reserve is on pace to be empty before Murkowski's current four-year term ends.

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

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.



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