University money plan fails by two votes

Posted: Thursday, April 13, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- A proposal to tap the state's budget-balancing reserve to increase spending on the University of Alaska failed in the House by two votes Wednesday as some minority Democrats balked at the prospect of losing a tactical advantage.

The plan pushed by House Finance Committee Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder would use $206 million from the Constitutional Budget Reserve to replace the university's $172 million general fund budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The extra $34 million is intended for both fiscal year 2001 and fiscal year 2002.

Mulder, R-Anchorage, who has opposed increases for the university in the past, said he was won over by University President Mark Hamilton's arguments that the university is crucial to the state's future as its economy diversifies. Hamilton asked for a $16.9 million increase in both years.

''Our economy is not going to be driven any more by primary resource extraction,'' said Mulder, adding that the university is needed to train workers for fields including oil, information technology, logistics and education. He particularly noted the impending retirement of many North Slope oil workers.

''If we can't provide the kids with the education for those jobs, they're going to come from the Lower 48,'' Mulder said.

However, tapping the reserve requires 30 votes in the 40-member House, and only 28 voted yes. Another vote on tapping the reserve was scheduled for Thursday, giving Mulder a day to win over more votes.

Eight minority Democrats and four dissident Republicans voted no. Minority lawmakers normally reserve their votes on the reserve as a bargaining chip in the adjournment deal that ends the Legislature's session.

Democrats worried they might lose bargaining power by giving up those votes early.

''Standing up for education is something we should do in a nonpartisan fashion,'' said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz.

The vote put a squeeze on the Democrats, who regularly argue for more money for the university and could face political backlash for not supporting it. Five Democrats -- John Davies and Tom Brice of Fairbanks and Eric Croft, Sharon Cissna and Allen Kemplen of Anchorage -- voted for the money.

''It's reassuring to see that the co-chair of Finance has been born again and got religion about the university,'' said Kemplen, who voted to tap the fund.

All 23 members of the Republican majority voted for the proposal, although a few voiced concern about increasing spending on the university as they try to cut government as a whole by $30 million.

''Now we're adding, in my opinion, $34 million back,'' said Rep. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage. ''It's an acknowledgment that we've come to the wall and we're not able to reduce the state's budget.''

Mulder proposed his plan as a way to segregate the university's increase from the rest of the state's operating budget, which reduces spending from the state's general fund by more than $20 million.

Even if it passes the House, the plan's fate in the Senate is uncertain. The Senate version of the budget already contains an $8.5 million increase for the university.

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