Governor threatens veto of school funds

Posted: Sunday, May 02, 2004

ANCHORAGE (AP) Gov. Frank Murkowski says he may veto an increase in education funding if lawmakers don't pass new taxes or use Alaska Permanent Fund earnings to help pay for government services.

The Legislature wants to pump about $80 million more into schools statewide next year to avoid large-scale teacher layoffs and cuts to programs. The House and Senate are negotiating a proposal, but lawmakers expect to give schools the money.

The increase ''is in jeopardy if there is not a revenue-matching measure for it,'' Murkowski said Friday. ''And currently there is not.''

The Republican governor said if the Legislature does not come up with a new source of revenue, he would have little alternative but to veto the school dollars.

With just days left before the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn for the year, lawmakers have not passed a significant tax and don't appear close to providing the revenue sources the governor wants.

The Senate is resisting Murkowski's push to have a public vote on turning to the permanent fund for state services.

But there is pressure on the Legislature to deliver the education funding, one of the biggest issues of the session. School districts including Anchorage, Fairbanks, Mat-Su and Kodiak planned teacher layoffs and program reductions in the face of rising expenses, lost spending power due to inflation and declining enrollment.

''I don't think it is fair to use education and students as pawns in this battle between the Legislature and the governor's office,'' Anchorage School Superintendent Carol Comeau said of Murkowski's remarks.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle questioned whether Murkowski would veto something as popular as the school dollars.

''I cannot envision a scenario where the governor would veto that education funding,'' said Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, a budget leader in the Senate.

Wilken said he thinks the Legislature should take the dollars for schools from the $2 billion Constitutional Budget Reserve, which absorbs the state's deficit spending each year.

Murkowski said that might be all right for a single year, but the additional school funding is likely to become permanent.

''Once we initiate it, we are going to do it every year,'' Murkowski said. ''And that is where the irresponsibility comes if we don't find a source of revenue.''

Murkowski's plan centers on tapping more than $600 million in fund earnings each year for state services. However, it could mean dividends hundreds of dollars less than otherwise. He also has backed several smaller taxes, but a $30 million boost in the state tobacco tax is the only one finding favor so far in the Legislature.

House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said the Legislature might override the governor's veto if Murkowski made good on his threat to target the school funding.

''To threaten education funding in this election year is like a nuclear bomb,'' said Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage.

''He really wants to get into the permanent fund, and he's willing to use anything at his disposal,'' Ellis said.

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