School transportation bill sinks under weight of added spending

Posted: Tuesday, April 18, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- A bill originally intended to rein in student transportation costs failed Monday in the Senate after amendments loaded the measure with millions of dollars in other education spending.

The first version of Senate Bill 290 addressed only one issue -- the rising cost of student transportation contracts negotiated by local school districts. The state pays the cost of the contracts, but neither the Legislature nor the Department of Education and Early Development have any power in negotiating the agreements made by school districts.

This year, that left lawmakers facing an unexpected $5 million increase and looking for a way to restrain future growth in contracts. But before the Senate could vote on a proposed fix, the bill turned into a ''Christmas tree'' -- legislative slang for a bill that branches out and fattens as it moves through the process.

''The bill started as a way to fix the $5 million problem,'' said Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks. ''It's changed for the worse. We've hung other things on this that frankly I can't support.''

The bill failed 9-11, although lawmakers may retract that vote to revise the measure on Tuesday.

The measure's twisted trip to failure began when the Senate Finance Committee voted narrowly to combine the measure with Senate Bill 105, a proposal by Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell, to change the state's school funding formula to channel about $1 million more to three school districts.

Taylor contends the 1998 rewrite of the formula shorted Wrangell and Petersburg, which lie within his Southeast Alaska district.

His change would send $249,584 more per year to Wrangell, $351,925 to Petersburg and $408,2989 to the Delta-Greely School District in the Interior, according to the Department of Education.

''It's now two years later and some of us are still trying to make very small technical changes,'' Taylor said of the formula revision.

When the bill hit the Senate floor, a series of amendments quickly drove up the cost of the bill, making it less attractive to the budget-conscious Republicans who control the chamber.

Sen. Dave Donley, R-Anchorage proposed increasing state support for charter schools by $2 million. School districts get less money per student for such schools than for conventional schools.

''I think that's a pretty serious inequity,'' said Donley. ''These children ought to be treated the same.''

Before the Senate could vote on Donley's amendment, Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, moved to change it to include alternative schools as well as charter schools, boosting the cost even more.

''It's a little less than a small $8 million,'' said Torgerson dryly. Torgerson, the co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, may have been trying to kill the larger bill by inflating the price tag.

Although Torgerson was one of the early supporters of the original student transportation bill, he objected to the inclusion of Taylor's bill in committee, saying it cost too much.

Taylor interpreted the amendment as an attempt to block his proposed change to the school formula.

''There were several attempts there being made, not just targeted at me but at the bill itself,'' Taylor said. ''What happened there ... was a bit disappointing.''

Torgerson's change to Donley's amendment passed 10-9, over Donley's objection. Then Donley's altered -- and more expensive -- proposal passed 12-8.

The increased cost of the bill apparently doomed its final passage.

''Exactly where does this money come from?'' asked Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, shortly before the bill failed with many of the lawmakers who had supported amendments voting no.

Taylor expressed hope that lawmakers could resolve their differences and resurrect the bill on Tuesday. The Senate's GOP majority disappeared into a closed caucus shortly after their session.

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