Spending package coming together piece by piece

Posted: Tuesday, April 17, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- In the next three and a half weeks, legislative decisions will determine how much schools spend on teachers and books next year, how many troopers patrol the highways, whether new schools are built -- and how much money the state pulls out of its savings account.

A House and Senate conference committee continues working this week to settle differences between the House and Senate operating budgets for the fiscal year starting July 1.

The capital budget, which sets spending on construction and major maintenance projects, is expected to hit the Senate floor by the end of April. And other bills that pass before the May 8 adjournment may also add to the bottom line.

Unlike the past five years when lawmakers were under a self-imposed plan to cut general fund spending by $250 million, legislators have set no upper limit yet on what they will spend when all money bills are added together.

''Things have been discussed, but conclusions have not been reached yet,'' said Senate Finance Committee Co-Chairman Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks.

Senate Finance Co-Chairman Dave Donley, R-Anchorage, said he'd like to keep total spending below the rate of population and inflation increases, or under 2 percent.

A state revenue forecast projects if spending hits $2.4 million, the state will need to draw $622 million out of the Constitutional Budget Reserve, a state savings account.

So far, the House and Senate operating budgets for the fiscal year that starts July 1 call for $2.24 billion in general fund spending -- about $72 million more than the current year's budget, but $60 million less than Gov. Tony Knowles proposed.

Much of that increase is due to higher bond debt payments, the need to replace one-time funding sources that were used in this year's budget and a requirement to pay for increases in programs such as Medicaid that become more expensive as health care costs go up and more people enroll.

Although both House and Senate budgets spend about the same total amount, there are differences. The Senate version spends more on schools but less on prisons and criminal defense attorneys for the poor. The conference committee will decide whose numbers to use when the spending plans differ.

Neither the House nor the Senate operating budgets give the governor and Democrats as much as they wanted for education, public health and public safety. More funding may emerge, though, in bills whose fiscal notes get tacked onto the budget bills at the end of the session.

The only new money legislators have provided schools so far is an extra $6.2 million in grants in the Senate budget. Both House and Senate budgets continued about $6.2 million in grants they handed out last year.

With districts struggling to help their students pass a new high school exit exam, there's pressure to spend more on schools, even among majority Republicans.

''There's going to be an education increase of some sort,'' said Rep. Bill Williams, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee. ''Nothing formal has come out, but that's what I hear in the halls, not only in the halls, but (from) our constituents in the state.''

Kelly, the Senate Finance co-chairman, agreed.

''If I were a betting man, I'd say there'd be some more,'' Kelly said.

Legislators have so far approved no new spending for additional village public safety officers and a new constable program Knowles wanted to improve public safety in rural Alaska, but a bill by Senate President Rick Halford, R-Chugiak, could yet beef up spending there.

It would provide raises for village public safety officers in exchange for their taking on parole and probation supervision duties in villages and would let them enroll in the state retirement system.

Halford's bill would also fund four regional public safety officers. Regional public safety officer would a new job category that would require less training than a trooper but more than a village public safety officers.

Other bills with a fair amount of support that could boost spending include an anti-drunken driving bill, a bill establishing therapeutic courts for repeat drunk-driving offenders, a measure to increase the number of charter schools in Alaska and a couple of bills to provide student loan forgiveness for teachers.

On top of that, the governor has submitted a $100.9 million general fund capital budget.

Williams said the Republican majority leadership hasn't settled on a capital budget target, but numbers he's heard tossed around as acceptable range from $72 million to $120 million of general fund spending.

The Legislature's version of that budget originates in the Senate, and Kelly said he expects it to land on the Senate floor in late April.

Knowles has also proposed several bond packages, including $127 million for schools and $425 million for transportation projects. Kelly said he doubts all those will be approved.

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