Republicans finding realities of budget vote difficult to stomach

Posted: Sunday, May 19, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Senate Republicans who have enjoyed a session relatively free of demands from the minority Democrats are finding that the price of fiscal responsibility is high.

Lawmakers are required to balance the state budget, and they can't do that without meeting the Democrats' demands for more spending in key areas.

Democrats want more money for Bush school construction, more for the state's school funding formula, and a solution to maintain energy subsidies for high-cost rural areas.

Republicans only need three Democrat votes to take money from the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve, balance the budget, and go home.

They've been stymied twice, first during the 121-day regular session and again in an unprecedented extended session that dissolved after two days without a compromise.

Lawmakers entered their first day of special session to agree on a school bonding plan along with a host of other legislation wanted by both lawmakers and Gov. Tony Knowles.

''I think we're seeing the effect of the Constitutional Budget Reserve. I think the CBR has outlived its time,'' said Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks.

Cash from the state's budget reserve, a $2.4 billion account fueled by natural resources royalty settlements, is needed to balance state spending with a fiscal 2003 spending plan lawmakers have already approved.

Pulling money out of the account requires a three-fourths vote in both houses. So at least two Democrats in the House and one in the Senate must agree.

It's a small detail that is having a big impact on this legislative session where Democrats, particularly those in the Senate, have been largely ignored by the Republican majority.

Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, said the caucus was ignored when it announced its legislative priorities. Ellis called Senate Republicans a ''supermajority that is arrogant and drunk with power.''

Some Republicans backed a proposal to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to remove the requirement for a three-fourths vote. Lawmakers like Sen. Dave Donley, R-Anchorage, have accused Democrats of ''blackmailing'' Republicans into higher spending.

Wilken, the Fairbanks Republican, favors spending the reserve account down so that lawmakers no longer look to it to balance the budget.

But some Democrats see it as the only protection they have to help balance the state's competing concerns while lawmakers balance the budget.

Democrats -- many representing Bush Alaska -- want more rural schools included in the bond package along with additional money for primary education.

They point to a long history of shortfalls in school maintenance and construction for remote parts of the state. Superior Court Judge John Reese ruled two years ago that the Legislature has provided inadequate school facilities in rural areas.

Without the need for Democratic support to approve the budget, members of the minority say, few rural schools would have been included in the package.

''This is the only thing that's been a check on some pretty extreme behavior,'' Ellis said. ''It's been used to achieve fairness.''

The bond package included 11 rural schools, and Democrats were negotiating to include up to 19 schools on the state's priority list.

Republicans argue that a bond package will need to be more balanced to achieve voter support in November.

Democrats also want 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. That's the amount the state reimburses when urban schools obtain bonds. The Democrats say rural construction projects have been ''left in the dust'' and point to the lawsuit as proof.

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