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Ed. funding, oil taxes priorities for Legislature's last month

Posted: March 19, 2012 - 11:07pm  |  Updated: March 20, 2012 - 12:02am

JUNEAU — Oil taxes and education funding are among the remaining priorities for House and Senate leaders as the Legislature enters its final four weeks.

As of Monday, 27 days remained in the 90-day session.

Oil taxes, a major point of contention last session, have continued to dominate the conversation in Juneau this year. The Senate Finance Committee is in its second week of work on an oil tax bill, following weeks of work in the Senate Resources Committee. And with the session winding down, the House Resources Committee plans to start holding overview hearings on the issue, to get members up to speed, this week.

House Speaker Mike Chenault said Monday that the House Finance Committee plans to delve into education funding next week. Also still pending: state spending plans for next year and efforts to address high energy costs paid by Alaskans.

One of the big unknowns: Will the Legislature go into overtime, as it did last year? Chenault said it’s hard to know the answer to that question in part until the House sees what the Senate sends over on oil taxes.

The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn April 15.

Gov. Sean Parnell has said he doesn’t feel compelled to accept any oil tax plan, just for the sake of making some change. Parnell has said any change must be meaningful — the buzz term this session — capable of getting the industry to drill more and produce far more oil than it currently is.

The Senate has taken the lead on the issue after last year refusing to follow the House and pass Parnell’s tax-cut plan.

The current Senate proposal, SB192, would cut taxes though not as deeply as Parnell’s plan would. Industry representatives and the administration say SB192 doesn’t go far enough to change the investment climate, to encourage more oil production. Supporters of the bill see it as a responsible approach to the issue.

Senate President Gary Stevens, who once hoped to have a bill to the House with at least a month left in session, said Senate Finance is working to “speed through the process.”

“But the reality is they need to get it right, more importantly than they need to speed. ... People are always saying, ‘Why can’t you make a fast decision?’ Well, that’s not what you want in a Legislature,” Stevens, R-Kodiak, said. “You don’t want a fast decision. You want thoughtful, well-reasoned, meaningful decisions and that’s what I think will come out of Senate Finance.”

The committee is the last stop before a floor vote.

“We don’t want to make a mistake on this,” Stevens said, alluding to the fact that Alaska relies heavily on oil revenues to run. “This is so important we just can’t make a mistake.”

Meanwhile, House Finance is expected to take a more holistic approach to the funding issue.

There are several bills or proposals pending that would address different aspects of funding for education, including one passed by the Senate that would implement automatic increases over three years to help address increased costs. Parnell, like some majority House Republicans, has resisted automatic increases, saying there should be more accountability for how increased aid is spent.

Parnell has requested $30.3 million in one-time funding to address increases in school energy and student transportation costs.

Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage and the House minority whip, said her caucus’ focus this year has been on how the state can use its wealth to substantially impact the lives of Alaskans. Education, she said, is a big part of that, from pre-kindergarten programs to “adequate” school funding and sufficient classroom resources.

Chenault, R-Nikiski, said automatic increases alone don’t fix the problem. He said there are other factors to consider in the overall funding picture, like retirement and health care costs for school employees.

“Can we address them all and fix them all long-term this year? I don’t think we can but we need to get them out on the table and talk about them and try to address just funding,” he said.

Stevens said that if it’s impossible for the House to agree to the automatic increases to the funding formula, senators would have to find a way to compromise, “but we won’t be happy about it.”

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