As the Alaska Legislature enters the final week and a half of the “Education Session,” two of the biggest questions facing lawmakers have not been answered.
How much more will schools be paid per student?
What will the state do about the multibillion-dollar liability in the public workers’ and teachers’ retirement systems?
The House of Representatives did little to answer either question Monday during a marathon floor debate on the governor’s omnibus education bill, HB278.
Representatives passed the bill a minute before midnight Tuesday morning, and senators’ staffs spent much of Tuesday trying to grasp the significant changes approved late Monday.
No change was bigger than an amendment from Juneau Republican Rep. Cathy Muñoz that stripped the Teachers’ Retirement System portion of the bill.
“We did the right thing,” Muñoz said.
The missing component would have set a schedule for the state to pay off the debt within the retirement system.
The sections were stripped from the bill after lawmakers received an actuarial analysis of the so-called “pay-as-you-go” plan drafted by Legislative Finance Director David Teal.
The analysis indicated the plan, under certain circumstances, was an unstable option, and lawmakers had little appetite for taking risks on multibillion-dollar decisions.
“We’re all digesting that (report),” Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, told reporters Tuesday. “We’re trying to figure out a better way to do it.”
But after the House’s 37-3 vote against the pay-as-you-go proposal, there is a growing possibility that a long-term fix may be in the hands of the next Legislature.
“There is no closing window of opportunity here,” Teal said, adding that the state can make the scheduled payment of just over $700 million this year and consider it’s options over the next year.
“It was a plan that needed a lot more time for review,” Muñoz said of the proposal.
She added that there has been talk of creating a working group to study the issue over the next year, and she still expects the Legislature to pay a lump sum down payment similar to the $3 billion proposed by Republican Gov. Sean Parnell.
During a press availability Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage and co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, also said the Legislature may wait to find a long-term solution for the retirement program next year.
In the other major unanswered topic, Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla and a finance member, said no decision on education funding has been made.
Currently, Juneau schools stand to gain $2.4 million in additional state funding should the House version of HB278 become law.
That version would pay schools $185 more per student this year, then $58 more in each of the two following years. Alaska schools currently receive $5,680 for an average student. That figure would rise to $5,981 in 2016.
The House version of the education bill also includes $30 million in one-time funding to be divided among school districts.
The Senate Finance Committee had been debating a proposal that adds even more money than the House’s bill, so, while it is unclear what the final numbers will be, Muñoz and Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, each expect the figure to rise.
Juneau School Board member Lisa Worl previously told the Empire that no teaching positions would be cut this year if the district received at least $2.1 million.