Ulmer touts education, fast ferries to Juneau Chamber

Posted: Sunday, September 22, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Alaska's schools would have received $13 million more this year if lawmakers had inflation-proofed the state's foundation formula, Democrat candidate for governor Fran Ulmer said Friday.

In a speech before the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, the lieutenant governor criticized Republican lawmakers for not enacting such a measure and also outlined several steps she would take to improve the state's education system.

Ulmer also took on Republican opponent Frank Murkowski for waging an election campaign promising large construction projects and no specific way to pay for them. Ulmer warned voters not to fall for ''the bumper sticker proposals'' touted by Murkowski.

''People are afraid to make investments when they don't know who is paying the bills,'' Ulmer said.

Ulmer has vowed to make changes in the state's education system her top priority and has proposed extending the school year, tying the school funding formula to inflation and offering incentives to attract teachers to the state.

On Friday, she criticized the Legislature for its decision to give $16 million in one-time grants to schools. Including inflation in the state's school funding formula would have given schools $13 million more this year, Ulmer said.

The proposal would have been cheaper than one-time grants and would have given school districts a better tool in planning their future budgets, she said.

The Legislature has increased school funding through the state's foundation formula every year since at least 1988. But Ulmer said when inflation is added to the equation, it represents a 20 percent decline in education spending since 1990.

This year the state earmarked $645.5 million in aid to schools through the foundation formula, a $7 million increase from the previous year. Schools received $486.8 million in formula spending in fiscal 1990.

Ulmer said too many teachers are leaving Bush schools and returning to the Outside. The state should reinstate a student loan forgiveness program that will provide added incentive for teachers to stay in Alaska, she said.

A program to forgive up to half of a state student loan for students was ended in 1984 when the Alaska Student Loan Corporation was created.

The state offers an incentive to high school students who return to Alaska and teach in Bush schools for five years, said Diane Barrans, executive director for the Postsecondary Education Commission.

But the program is not widely used. Barrans said about 84 people qualified for that benefit in fiscal 2001.

Murkowski had proposed using revenues from timber sales and mining operations to fund an endowment for education. He proposed setting aside 1 million acres of state forest in Southeast Alaska to encourage state investment in mining infrastructure to raise revenues.

Ulmer also touched on several issues affecting Southeast Alaska during her speech before the chamber.

Among those:

-- Ulmer said she supports more fast ferries for Alaska Marine Highway System. But Ulmer said she is opposed to a recommendation by the Southeast Conference to create an independent authority to oversee the state's ferry service. Such a move would make it easier for the Legislature to make cuts in the ferry service, Ulmer said.

-- A transportation study examining a road from Juneau to the Haines and Skagway area should be resumed. The study needs about $1.5 million and a year to complete, Ulmer said.

She would not say whether she supports building a road out of Juneau, but said widespread support in Southeast is needed for it to be accepted by the rest of the state.

Ulmer criticized Murkowski for a transportation plan that she says is vague about the costs and ignores more immediate needs.

Murkowski had made a road out of Juneau part of a far ranging plan to build new roads and rail lines linking resource-rich areas of the state. The plan offered no specifics on how those projects would be funded.

Snow removal and winter road upkeep was curtailed in some areas after the Legislature eliminated $6.7 million from the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities' maintenance budget, Ulmer said.

''My priority is going to be to get the snow plows back on the road and send the Legislature the bill,'' Ulmer said.

Murkowski spokesman Dan Saddler defended their plan to expand the state's road and rail system, saying such undertakings would pay dividends in economic development.

''It rather points up the difference between the two candidates. One does not want to try new things and one is going to get off the dime and do something ... and make it better,'' Saddler said.

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