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Parnell adds $30.3M for school funding

Posted: March 8, 2012 - 1:13am

Following weeks of criticism for submitting a budget that flat-funded education in Alaska, Gov. Sean Parnell said Wednesday he’ll submit an amended budget that includes an additional $30.3 million for education.

The amount comes close to matching the $30.6 million increase endorsed by the state Senate earlier, but is structured as one-time funding,

The use of the single apropriation, rather than ongoing, boost to education was the subject of an impromptu debate at Wednesday’s Native Issues Forum in downtown Juneau.

The two speakers are among the legislative leaders in the debate, with Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, co-chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee, backing the governor’s position.

He agreed with Parnell that providing ongoing money into the foundation’s formula school funding plan would be difficult to cut later if money is tight.

Rep. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, is vice-chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee and a outspoken advocate of the base student allocation included in the state’s foundation formula for schools.

“I’m not trying to point the finger at anyone, but the governor did not increase education funding,” Davis said. “He flat-funded it, which means under-funded,” she said.

While the Senate has advocated for steady, multi-year funding increases, the House leadership, including Thomas, has backed Parnell.

Thomas jumped to challenge Davis, saying that the state provided $1.2 billion to schools as part of a total of $1.8 billion they get.

What he didn’t want to do, he said, was to put money into formulas such as the education foundation formula.

“When we run into a wall of ‘no money,’ unless somebody finds a big oilfield somewhere, we can’t cut formula-driven programs,” Thomas said.

That means the Legislature will likely go after low-hanging fruit, such as municipal revenue sharing, instead.

Thomas, who supported Parnell’s oil tax cut bill, said the state is just two or three years from a deficit as it is.

Although both parties said they wanted the forum’s question-and-answer session not to turn into a debate, it quickly turned into a spirited one.

Davis challenged Thomas’ claims of impending doom.

“I want you to know that this state is not in trouble in the sense that we’d don’t have the funds, we do have the funds,” she said.

“We’re the only state in this nation that has enough money that we can forward-fund education every year,” Davis said.

Davis said she appreciated the support by Parnell and the House leaders for supporting extra appropriations to help the schools cope with rising energy and transportation costs, but that wasn’t actually their top priority.

“I have no problem with the energy and all that things that we can give, but that does not fund the formula itself, and the formula funds the education,” Davis said.

Thomas didn’t back off his position at all.

“We’re totally afraid of foundation formulas, you can’t get out of them,” he said.

Parnell said Wednesday he’ll propose budget amendments to pay for rising costs in both energy and student transportation, as extra one-time budget amounts.

He said his support for energy and transportation money was based on information from the Legislature’s public hearings.

Rep. Pete Petersen, D-Anchorage, an outspoken education advocate in the House, called Parnell’s proposal a “stop-gap measure” that didn’t solve the problem.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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