Legislature calls itself into special session as rural school talks fail

Posted: Friday, May 17, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- The Legislature has called itself into a special session to attempt to broker a deal on a school construction bond package and dislodge Democrat votes needed to balance the budget.

Republicans in the House and Senate garnered the two-thirds support of its members to hold the special session after midnight Thursday when it adjourned.

The special session called by GOP leaders was scheduled to begin three hours before a 2 p.m. special session on subsistence called by Democrat Gov. Tony Knowles.

This action happened after lawmakers failed to find a compromise before time ran out on the regular session on Tuesday and after it granted itself an unprecedented two-day extension.

In the closing hours of their work on Thursday, lawmakers watched a precarious deal fall apart amid the minutiae of balancing the $200 million bond package between urban and rural schools.

''I obviously wanted to see an education package, but what was wanted was more than the majority caucus wanted to buy,'' said Senate President Rick Halford, R-Chugiak.

House GOP leaders held frequent meetings with minority Democrats and intransigent rank-and-file Senate Republicans on brokering the session-ending deal.

Republicans hold a majority in both houses, but cannot access the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve without Democrat votes.

The Legislature needs to use its reserve account to comply with it's constitution and balance the state's $2.3 billion general fund budget that was approved on Wednesday.

Democrats -- many of whom represent Bush Alaska -- wanted more rural schools included in the bond package along with additional money for K-12 education.

They pointed to a history of inadequate school maintenance and construction for the remote areas of the state. Superior Court Judge John Reese ruled last year that the Legislature has provided inadequate school facilities in rural areas.

Republicans intent on holding the line on state spending this year in reaction to an anticipated $963 million budget deficit balked at making the bond package larger.

So the deal brokered among legislative leaders included more rural schools in the bond package in return for a municipal reimbursement program requiring the state to pay a large share of urban schools.

The deal was complicated by Democrats' plan to ensure future rural school needs don't get left behind.

Democrats wanted a commitment from Republicans that an amount equal to 70 percent of the annual debt on urban projects would go toward rural school construction and maintenance.

''It shows a moral obligation,'' said Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, whose constituents sued for more balanced rural school construction.

But Republicans balked at the last hour of the session when they realized what the cost would be when existing projects around the state were included in the equation.

Democrats assumed about $50 million would have been available for rural schools under their scenario. Under the Republican scenario, only about $14 million would have been available.

Rep. John Davies, a Democrat from Fairbanks who was one of the chief negotiators, said it was the difference between building one school and several.

Ultimately, Republicans stepped away from the plan and at midnight the session ended with no resolution.

Halford, who had been trying to win a compromise plan among his entrenched Senate Republican caucus, said he still wants to find a compromise to aid rural schools.

''I believe we were very close and we could have had something if the minority could have come a little bit,'' Halford said. ''They are still good things and if people come back to the table they should still be looked at.''

Knowles has already called the Legislature into a special session on subsistence and has threatened a special session if two key issues also die.

The Legislature ended its business without taking up some veterans bills and a reauthorization of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska.

That commission, which regulates utilities and telephone service, was set to sunset this year and will begin shutting down June 30.

Bob King, Knowles' press secretary, said the governor wants the Legislature to also consider those two issues when it returns on Friday.

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