Senate finance adds millions for education

Posted: Friday, April 25, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) The Senate Finance Committee on Thursday approved changes in next year's operating budget that would give $9.5 million more to the University of Alaska.

It also added another $30 million to K-12 education, kept open the state's correspondence school and funded the longevity bonus program for seniors.

By the end of the late-night budget session, committee members weren't exactly sure how much they had proposed spending in fiscal 2004. But Senate Finance Co-chair Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, was sure it was too much.

I'm very concerned that we have probably burst the bank tonight,'' Green said.

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to resume budget deliberations on Friday. But by the time the dust settles, and the full Senate votes on an operating budget for next year, Green said it should be slimmer.

After two days of public testimony against several cuts proposed by Gov. Frank Murkowski, the committee added state money to public schools and independent living centers to name a few areas.

In the area of education, the committee approved an amendment that would raise the state's school funding formula to $4,169 per student and maintain the current funding for pupil transportation support.

Another $2.2 million was added to the foundation formula for wards of the state and the committee agreed to continue the current level of funding for debt reimbursement.

Funding for the University of Alaska which Murkowski proposed be increased was cut by more than $10 million in the House. The Senate Finance Committee added $9.5 million back.

But that came over the objection of some Republicans on the committee, who favored adding only $7 million.

Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, who had been a vocal supporter for the university, proposed an additional $2.5 million that was approved by a vote of 4-3.

Sens. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage; Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel; and Donny Olson, D-Nome, voted for it. Green voted against it along with Sens. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell, and Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage.

Green said the unexpected amendment will likely require cuts in other areas of the budget. She didn't know where those cuts would be made, she said.

Murkowski, who has said the state must tighten its belt to balance its budget this year, had proposed slashing $55 million from overall spending, eliminating the longevity bonus program, closing the Alyeska Central School and cutting state support to schools.

Faced with a chronic budget deficit, Murkowski had called on lawmakers to draw no more than $393 million from the state's rapidly dwindling reserve fund.

The House couldn't do it and budget leaders there said in the face of less optimistic projections for oil revenues, it was unlikely it could be done.

The Senate Finance Committee budget keeps Alyeska Central School open but ends its summer school program. It also preserves the longevity bonus, but Wilken said that program is likely to undergo a change.

He said the Senate GOP caucus is split on whether to eliminate the program or create a needs-based test for seniors who now receive it.

The budget will undergo more work by the Senate Finance Committee before being sent to the floor for a vote. The full Senate could also change it on the floor before sending it to a conference committee.

Senate and House budget leaders are ultimately expected to meet to craft a compromise that will meet Murkowski's approval.

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