House adds school, port projects to bond bill

Posted: Wednesday, April 26, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- House Republicans sweetened the school and ports bond package by adding four more projects Tuesday, but Democrats say they will continue pushing for at least 10 new rural schools and major upgrades for others.

The House added $30 million to its version of the bond bill. The new projects include a $17.5 million school in Noorvik, $7.6 million for an addition to the University of Alaska Southeast library, $1.5 million for renovation of a Pedro Bay school and $4 million for a harbor project in Sitka.

''It demonstrates we're attempting to be fair in addressing the major concerns out there,'' said Rep. Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee.

The additions bring the total of the House bond bill to just more than $300 million.

Mulder called the list immanently fair for school construction next year. However, Finance Committee minority member John Davies said sweetening the capital projects pot usually comes later in the session and the gesture will not get his fellow Democrats to back House Bill 281.

''It's too little, too early,'' said Davies, D-Fairbanks.

The House plan calls for issuing revenue bonds backed by money anticipated from a tobacco litigation settlement.

The Senate has proposed a $439 million schools, harbor and roads package in two bills financed by general obligation bonds, which are subject to approval of voters.

Mulder said the additional House projects approved Tuesday will not satisfy the Democratic minority, but the total cost now reaches the upper limit the state can expect from tobacco litigation money.

''There's not a lot of flexibility in this approach,'' Mulder said.

House Democrats say they're willing to use more than one funding mechanism to pay for projects.

Before Tuesday's session, they advanced what they're calling the ''olive branch'' proposal, a mix of the House and Senate majority plans.

The plan calls for using $195 million in revenue bonds backed by tobacco money plus $249 million in general obligation bonds. The combined $444 million would cover the costs of the top 10 projects on the Department of Education's school construction list.

The plan includes $65 million for most projects on the department's major maintenance list.

The Democrat's plan also calls for spending $4 million on tobacco prevention and cessation programs. The $1.4 million in the House Republican plan for cessation programs has been a sore point for anti-smoking advocates, who say more of the tobacco settlement money should be devoted to people affected by tobacco.

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said the additional projects approved by the House indicate both sides are cooperating.

But the vehicle used to pay for projects is less important than replacing at least 10 outdated rural schools and paying for major maintenance so more schools do not fall apart, Berkowitz said.

''We're keeping our eyes on the big picture,'' he said. ''There's a lot still left undone in this budget.''

Mulder said House Republicans will meet with their Senate counterparts within the next two days to try to work out an agreement.

''If we remain at loggerheads, we could end up leaving town without any school projects,'' Mulder said.

Berkowitz said that would probably prompt Gov. Tony Knowles to call a special session to address school construction.

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