Governor's priorities include transportation, education

Posted: Saturday, February 16, 2008

With a regular session of the Alaska Legislature looming, Republican Gov. Sarah Palin's office is working to solidify budget proposals and legislative priorities.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

Russ Kelly, legislative director for Palin, said her priorities generally include education, resource development, public safety, transportation and continued ethics reform.

The governor hopes to develop a long-term transportation plan that takes into account a shrinking supply of federal funds.

Also, staff is working on reworking how education is funded.

"It's going to be a three-year plan," Kelly said. "The hope is to get the discussion away from how much is it going to be this year, and how many teachers laid off in spring only to be rehired in the fall. Having a multi-year plan takes some of the pressure off of that, and being able to focus on the best education system we can possibly have."

House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said such a plan is not likely to pass.

"It ain't going to happen," Harris said. "The Legislature is not going to give up their ability to fund education year to year, because we want to know how much money there is before we set the budget. You need to know how much income is coming in in order set your priorities."

House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said her caucus supports an education budget that is forward-funded, which means money is set aside to pay for schools in future years. Kerttula said she'd want to see the details of any plan.

"It would get around the pink slips and get around teachers having to go through this terrible situation every year," she said. "The value should be to make teachers and students as secure as they can be rather than this pull and push with the Legislature every year."

Kelly said the governor expects ethics-in-government reform to resurface this year as there's a need to continue to restore Alaskans' faith in their government.

"It seems silly to try and pretend as if it doesn't have a huge affect on how we do business as a state. To think that we aren't going to do something about it legislatively is probably not realistic," Kelly said.

Harris said the sweeping ethics reforms achieved this session were enough, and that more could discourage people from becoming lawmakers.

"What more is there to address that wasn't addressed already?" Harris said. "I don't know what the hell they've been smoking if they want to do more ethics reform. I want to get down to some substantive issues to deal with the economy."

Harris also took issue with the governor's proposal for how to deal with $7.1 billion in anticipated surpluses from the new oil tax structure, saying it was not a savings plan, but a spending plan.

Senate Minority Leader Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, defended some parts of the proposal as providing some legitimate savings.

"Even if it's delayed spending, if you keep it from being consumed in this calendar year, there is a savings element in that," Therriault said. "Certainly when there's a dollar on the table there's an inclination to spend it."

Alaska's constitution prohibits dedicated funds, so there's a possibility that the $2.6 billion Palin hopes to put toward education, or the $1 billion toward transportation, could be spent in other ways, Kerttula said.

Kelly said lawmakers also are anticipating a good bit of discussion about the governor's proposal to transfer $2.4 billion from the Alaska Permanent Fund's earnings reserve to the principal.

If the money is in the earnings reserve, there's more dollars to fend off stock market fluctuations to guarantee a consistent yearly dividend. On the other hand, keeping the money in the principal makes it more difficult for the Legislature to tap.

"We need to make sure there is enough money available in the earnings reserve so we can pay future dividends," Therriault said. "I will consider it personally (the transfer of funds), but there are a number of members of the Legislature that want to be cautious that we don't put ourselves in a position that funds that might be necessary are all locked away."

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