Knowles pushes for children's programs, state contracts

Posted: Sunday, April 16, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- Gov. Tony Knowles urged lawmakers Friday not to adjourn without addressing his spending priorities, including money for children's programs and state employee contracts.

Leaders of the Republican majority want to adjourn by Easter, more than two weeks before the mandatory end of the 121-day session. Lawmakers are maneuvering the budgets and other key bills into position for a session-ending deal.

At a news conference Friday, Knowles was ready to temporarily abandon some of his early priorities for the session, including a constitutional amendment allowing a rural subsistence priority and a long-term solution to the state's financial problems.

''This Legislature has no stomach for dealing with the subsistence issue,'' said Knowles, a Democrat who looks to the November election for a more cooperative House and Senate. ''Hopefully there will be changes made at the ballot box.''

Instead, he focused on making sure the session-ending deal doesn't leave out the administration's priorities budget and praised lawmakers for bipartisan cooperation on many budget issues. Knowles' veto power gives him an indirect voice in the Legislature's end game.

Legislative leaders, who say they have heard little from Knowles this session, reacted dubiously.

''Doesn't have the stomach?'' said House Speaker Brian Porter, R-Anchorage. ''I think we demonstrated last year in the House that we've got the stomach, and we've got the ulcers to prove it.''

A subsistence amendment passed the House last year and then failed in the Senate.

''It's nice of him to come home long enough to say it,'' said Senate President Drue Pearce, R-Anchorage.

Many of Knowles' comments were aimed at ongoing debates on the budget, including money for education, the University of Alaska and children's programs.

He chided lawmakers for not approving his request for a $2 million increase to Head Start, the program designed to prepare very young children in low-income households to succeed in school.

''That's neglecting an important part of the education continuum,'' Knowles said.

Majority Republicans are trying to reduce spending from the state's general fund by $30 million as a response to the gap between state spending and revenue.

Knowles also pushed for money for school construction in rural Alaska. A pending lawsuit accuses the Legislature of violating the state constitution and federal civil rights law by providing inferior schools in the Bush.

''We are insisting that a fair and adequate school construction plan be part of this year's adjournment package,'' Knowles said.

Republican lawmakers have been mostly silent about the lawsuit during the session, but the House Finance Committee unveiled a massive bond package Friday.

Meanwhile, differences between the House and Senate budgets are being worked out in a joint conference committee. Many of Knowles' requests for more money for child care, foster care and other child protection programs fared better in the Senate and could be cut by the joint panel.

The Senate's version of the operating budget contains $8.5 million of the $16.9 million increase Knowles requested for the university, along with $5.8 million for grants to help school districts prepare students for the new high school exit exam.

Both of those items are missing from the House budget, although lawmakers there are considering a separate spending bill that would tap a budget-balancing reserve to give the university a $34 million increase spread over two year.

''We have the opportunity to do some real good things,'' Knowles said. ''But there's some choices that would allow Alaska's children to fall through the cracks.''

Knowles also urged lawmakers to pay for newly negotiated contracts with state employee unions. The contracts require more than $12 million in new spending from the general fund in the fiscal year that begins July 1, and lawmakers may refuse to include them in the budget, a move that would likely force Knowles to call a special session.

''We're still looking at them, learning what's in them and what the cost is,'' Pearce said.

Knowles praised lawmakers for moving so quickly to sell state-owned hydroelectric projects to provide money for Power Cost Equalization, the subsidy the state pays to offset high power costs in the Bush.

The proposal unveiled earlier this week is moving quickly through the Legislature, and Knowles cited it as a departure from acrimonious debates over topics such as subsistence and education funding that pitted urban lawmakers against those who represent rural areas.

''I'd like to point to that as a significant urban-rural healing,'' Knowles said.

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