Halford may hold key to end session with more rural schools

Posted: Tuesday, May 14, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- A legislative session consumed by Republican rhetoric about holding down government spending may be remembered for its good old fashioned election-year brick and mortar.

For the first time in about 20 years lawmakers are considering a series of bonds to fund millions in new schools, building projects and roads.

And with only a day left in this legislative session, top Republicans and Democrats see the bond package as the key to ending the session on time.

''I think that's the final issue at play,'' said Rep. Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage. Mulder is co-chairman of the House Finance Committee and the House's top budget negotiator.

The Republican-controlled Legislature -- which slashed more than $170 million from Democrat Gov. Tony Knowles' budget request -- have spent late nights salving some of the wounds created.

State parks received more money to stay open, the ferry system got some last minute help and education funding could ultimately emerge relatively unscathed.

Millions of dollars have been hidden in other bills to lessen the blow on state services.

Republicans still talk about holding the line on state spending this year, but the volume reduces as the session draws near, said one Democrat.

''They're not doing that. They're slowly pulling off of the line of 'hold the line,''' said Eric Croft, D-Anchorage.

Lawmakers enter the final day of the regular session without final agreement on the state's fiscal 2003 budget.

Minority Democrats now take on a greater role in the process now since it takes a three-quarters vote to access the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve to balance the budget.

Democrats last week said they plan a push for more education funding, school construction and a host of veterans' bills pushed by Gov. Tony Knowles.

Republicans gave $15.7 million to the state's energy subsidy program to rural areas, or the Power Cost Equalization program, but Democrats say that is not enough to fully protect the program's endowment.

Republicans approved the last of the veterans bills pushed by Knowles, a Democrat, on Tuesday. Senate Republicans also voted for an increase in the state's alcohol tax, but showed no willingness to take up other revenue measures to close a state budget deficit anticipated to be $963 million next year.

Democrats complained loudly that an earlier House proposal to fund school construction projects ignored many rural schools identified by the state Department of Education and Early Development as high priority projects.

Democrats are seeking funding for 19 rural schools that could cost as much as $200 million.

A $19 million school improvement project at Akiachak schools was one item conspicuously absent from the list, Democrats said. Akiachak was where plaintiffs successfully sued the Legislature for discrimination against rural schools in construction projects.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, said he intended to hold out for all 19 rural schools on the construction list. But some Republicans indicated that may be in vain. So too may be another $23 million for the state's school foundation formula.

''For me, you've got three candy bars. Pick one,'' said Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks. Kelly chairs the Senate Finance Committee.

The Senate Finance Committee approved a series of bond packages late Tuesday night that included $134 million in new school construction and major maintenance.

It also included another $61.7 million for projects in the University of Alaska system. In all, the bond package approved by the Senate committee totals more than $201 million.

Also included is a reimbursement for debt bill totaling about $190.6 million which gives municipalities greater leverage in undertaking construction projects.

Senate President Rick Halford, R-Chugiak, said he wants a bond package that addresses as many of the state's top priority rural school projects. The final plan could be between $130 million and $200 million, Halford said.

Many details of the plan were unclear late Tuesday, but Croft said it showed promise. ''That could be a major part of getting out of here,'' he said.

The bond package approved by the Senate Finance Committee includes $102.8 million in Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle bonds, which essentially borrows against future federal highway dollars. Another $123.9 million general obligation bonds for various transportation projects is also included.

The bond package crafted in the House was aimed at attracting the most widespread voter support by balancing rural and urban programs alike, said Mulder.

Mulder said general obligation bonds for rural schools will be a key element in crafting a deal that Republicans and Democrats can agree to. But he said more money for other demands may go by the wayside.

''We've gone to the level our majority will support, so the final question is the school bonds,'' Mulder said.

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