Democrats vow fight over school funding

Posted: Monday, May 07, 2001

JUNEAU -- Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis and other Democrats are sporting yellow and black lapel buttons that say, ''4-46 or Fight.''

The slogan echoes a 19th Century Democratic presidential campaign rallying cry, but in Alaska it refers to four new rural schools and 46 major maintenance projects, mostly in rural Alaska, that Democrats want funded next year.

Repair and replacement of public schools, as well as a $30 million jump in operating budget money for education, are among the key Democrat demands for ending the 2001 session. Democrats in both the House and Senate say they may take steps to extend the session past Tuesday, the 121st day, if they are not satisfied with the amount of school money approved by majority Republicans.

''This is a big deal,'' Ellis said Sunday between committee meetings.

House Bill 234, proposing the sale of bonds backed by tobacco settlement money, would pay for new schools at Togiak and Golovin plus 14 major maintenance projects, mostly in rural Alaska.

Democrats want more and have discussed their desire with Republican leaders.

''We've gotten little movement,'' Ellis said ''This is our big last stand for schools, with the governor.''

Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, a minority member on the House Finance Committee, said the same thing.

''We're deadly serious, and it's a CBR issue for us,'' Croft said, referring to the three-quarters vote needed to draw money from the Constitutional Budget Reserve, a state savings account.

The Democrat's main weapon in leveraging changes is their CBR vote. When state revenue does not cover spending, legislators dip into the reserve. However, under the Alaska Constitution, that takes a three-quarters vote, meaning at least some Democrats have to say yes to pass an operating budget.

Instead of going up, Republicans are considering a reduction in spending for school repair.

Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, co-chairman of the Finance Committee, said he expected a new version of the tobacco bond bill Sunday night that would include fewer school major maintenance projects, perhaps nine instead of 14.

Kelly said the $127 million bill sent over by the House was simply too high and was likely to be cut to somewhere in the $80 million range.

Croft said that is not acceptable.

''We need to do a serious effort on school construction and maintenance,'' Croft said. ''Not only is it the right thing to do, it's court-mandated.''

Superior Court Judge John Reese ruled in March in a court case brought by rural residents that the Legislature has provided inadequate school facilities in rural areas. Reese said lawmakers passed over projects ranked highest on the Department of Education's lists for repair and replacement, many in districts with predominantly Native populations, in favor of urban schools.

Kelly said Reese looked at too narrow a time frame when he decided state support for rural schools was inadequate. He said the decision may be changed on appeal.

Croft said reducing the amount for school construction and maintenance would bring on a fight.

''That's bad-faith negotiating,'' Croft said. ''That's not a serious attempt to satisfy the concerns or a serious attempt to satisfy the needs of rural Alaska.''

He said Democrats may be willing to negotiate something less than four new schools and 46 major maintenance projects but are willing to extend the Legislature into special session if school funding is not adequate.

''It may be a special session or a veto issue,'' Croft said.

Alaska Democrats patterned their school slogan after one used in the presidential campaign of James Polk, a Democrat who served from 1845-49. Party extremists used ''54-40 or Fight'' in reference to a dispute with Canada over where the border for the Oregon Territory from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean would be set. The two countries eventually settled on the 49th Parallel rather than 54-degree, 40-minute line.

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