The Senate Finance Committee voted Tuesday to forward its version of the state operating budget for next fiscal year for consideration by the Alaska Senate after briefly meeting to approve amendments adding to the legislation.
While its House counterpart took hours to debate amendments, the Senate Finance Committee advanced rapidly through 11 amendments in a meeting that lasted about 23 minutes Tuesday morning, before recessing until the afternoon to allow staff time to incorporate the amendments into the legislation.
Several of the House amendments made further cuts to the budget, and several modest proposed general fund increases — including $37,500 for the Best Beginnings early education program to restore the program to funding levels, as well as $90,000 to fund the position of Center for Mine Training director at the University of Alaska Southeast — met with vocal objection in the House Finance Committee.
That was not the case in the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday, as about $1.48 million in general funds were added into the budget as allocations.
Among the additions was $37,500 for Best Beginnings — an amount that, unlike the allocation for the Center for Mine Training position, House Finance legislators ultimately denied.
Sen. Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River, offered the Best Beginnings amendment.
“We heard, two days ago, testimony where Best Beginnings had many people in the public supporting it,” said Fairclough.
Several members of the public testifying on the budget last weekend had urged members of the committee to restore the Best Beginnings funding, as well as funding for Parents as Teachers, another early education program run by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.
No amendment was offered Tuesday proposing more money for Parents as Teachers in the budget.
Another amendment offered by Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, a co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, reversed a reduction made in the House Finance Committee to general funding for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
In the House committee, co-chairman Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, successfully offered an amendment cutting ASMI funding for fiscal year 2014 from $7.77 million to just under $7.29 million. He said that reduction, representing one-sixteenth of the total ASMI unrestricted general fund appropriation, brought funding for ASMI proportionally in line with cuts to tourism marketing.
By adopting Meyer’s amendment, the Senate Finance Committee restored that $485,800 to ASMI’s appropriation.
Fairclough and Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, also put forward an amendment allocating $200,000 in one-time funding for the Alaska Vocational Technical Center, which resides within the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
“I’m a very strong advocate of vocational education,” said Bishop, a former commissioner of the department, during a Senate majority press conference late Tuesday morning. “You guys have heard me speak on that for six years as commissioner of labor, and I’m not going to give up on it.”
At that press conference, Bishop and others suggested the Senate majority caucus could put forward a “package” separate from the operating budget to provide additional education funding. Increased funding for schools was another common request in public testimony on the budget.
“The Senate is looking at funding an education package, and it’s undecided yet as to what that will be,” said Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, the other co-chairman of the Finance Committee.
Kelly also said he is looking at expanding the Senate Finance subcommittee on Education and Early Development and tasking it with working on solutions to school funding over the summer.
“Just funding (education), and yet not getting the results we want, don’t work,” said Kelly. “So we kind of have to (go) through this painful period of time where we’re maybe funding it in different ways than people are expecting. Maybe we don’t put it into the (Base Student Allocation). It’s one-time funding, multi-year fundings that don’t go into the BSA, whatever those discussions are. But essentially, we have to change how education works in this state, both financially and as far as the results we get. That’s what the subcommittee’s going to be working on this summer.”
The Base Student Allocation, or BSA, is a central piece of the education funding formula for school districts. This year is set to be the third in a row in which the BSA, which is not indexed to inflation, has not been increased.
Speaking about the allocations added to the Senate version of the budget via amendment, Kelly said several of those ideas came from public testimony.
“There were a lot of things that were brought before the Finance Committee that were not earth-shattering as far as the amount of money they were requesting,” said Kelly. “These weren’t huge, multi-million-dollar asks or anything like that. They seemed to go to specific programs that people were making a compelling case for.”
Kelly also credited former Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, for making a “compelling case” on funding for salmon projects, which led to the committee adding $150,000 back into the allocation for Southeast Regional Fisheries Management within the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The committee also approved language appropriating funds to pay for state workers’ salary increases negotiated between the state and public employee unions.
The Senate version of the operating budget stands at above $9.87 billion. That compares to a House version at $9.83 billion and Republican Gov. Sean Parnell’s version at just under $9.94 billion, with all three including the amount added for salary adjustments.
After the amendments were approved, Kelly thanked fellow senators on the committee for their work and praised the efforts of their budget subcommittees.
“I have never worked with a better group of people,” said Kelly. “I’ve worked with some great individuals, but as a group, this is the best Finance Committee I’ve ever seen.”
The committee meeting was recessed to the call of the chair after amendments were accepted. It was gaveled back in after 4 p.m. to allow the amended legislation to be presented and passed out of committee.
The operating budget is expected to go to the Senate floor for consideration Wednesday.
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at email@example.com.