Senate minority leader says education funding boost unlikely

Minority caucus prioritizes Medicaid expansion, budget issues
Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, introduces Senate Bill 131 to the Health & Social Services Standing Committee at the Capitol in February 2014. Gardner is now the Minority Leader in the Senate.

Last year, Senate Democrats pushed hard during the legislative session for a funding boost to the state’s base student allocation, a per-pupil education funding mechanism, which did gain relatively modest increases for the next few years.

But in this year’s drastically different financial environment, with crude oil prices coming close to $50 per barrel, they’ll be singing a different tune.

“I myself will call it a win if education doesn’t get any further cuts,” said Senate Minority Leader Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage. “In the current climate we have to steel ourselves and know there aren’t going to be increases, there shouldn’t be increases anywhere that I can understand.”

The budget challenges faced by the state are one of the five-member Democratic Senate minority’s top priorities in the upcoming legislative session, Gardner said. The state budget is facing an estimated $3.5 billion deficit in fiscal year 2016 due to declining oil revenue.

Gardner said there’s no way the Legislature will be able to cut that much from the budget; the focus should shift to the revenue side of the equation. The state must find new, untapped revenue sources.

“We have to start a big statewide conversation and make sure all Alaskans understand it’s not just a spending issue, it’s a revenue issue,” she said. “We cannot cut the budget enough to meet our needs at this point.”

Much like Gov. Bill Walker’s public survey released this week, Gardner said state legislators “should take the show on the road and go to communities across Alaska and ask their (budget) priorities.”

“I’m encouraging legislators to do a survey in their newsletters about it,” she said. “Everybody has to buy in, everybody has to be a part of it.”

The budget problem is “not going to be solved this year — that’s a longer-term thing,” Gardner said. But the state should start sharing more information with the public “to make sure not just the Legislature but the whole state is aware of (the budget deficit) and a part of the decision making.”

The caucus is also prioritizing legislation to support Medicaid expansion in Alaska, and is “excited” about a new gubernatorial administration that’s on the same page, Gardner said. Walker has made expansion of the health program in the state one of his office’s own priorities, and has made some pushes toward the goal in his short time in office.

“I think we are very, very interested in Medicaid expansion,” Gardner said. “That is front and center.”

The Senate Democrats will continue “to work on human rights issues,” she said, and will be reintroducing legislation to add sexual orientation to the state’s anti-discrimination statute. Last session, the bill was heard by the Senate Health and Social Services Committee and did not advance. At the end of a two-year Legislative session, bills that don’t become law die and must be reintroduced.

“Most bills are heard and held and not passed the first day they’re brought up,” Gardner said, although she feels this one should be pushed through without hesitation.

“You get it, you know what it’s about, and then you do it or you dont,” she said.

Gardner is hoping this year the anti-discrimination bill goes all the way. Similar bills have been pre-filed by Reps. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, and Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, in the House, “indicating there is broad support.”

Gardner will also reintroduce legislation that would compel Alaska law enforcement to target human traffickers “rather than victims” — the people who are coerced into prostitution. The bill has support from law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, she said.

She hopes the minority will have a productive session with the support of a more “receptive” administration that Democrats “have confidence in.”

“Every session offers opportunities and challenges, and this session is no different in that regard, except that we are so happy to have an administration that we can work with,” she said.

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.

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