House passes $70M boost to education

Increase would help pay retirement costs and raise per-student spending to $4,919

Posted: Thursday, March 03, 2005

The House on Wednesday voted unanimously to raise school funding by $70 million, even as Democrats continued to argue that several school districts would still have to cut programs with that amount.

The boost would raise per-student spending to $4,919, which is more than what Gov. Frank Murkowski proposed, but less than the $5,280 per student that Democrats had proposed in a debate on the House floor Tuesday.

Before the final 37-0 vote was taken, several Democrats said they would support the spending increase because it was an increase, but the funding level was not enough for many school districts.

"We heard from them, but we didn't listen," said Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage.

Much of the increase will go to paying retirement costs and to inflation and comparatively little to the classroom, said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage.

Bill sponsor Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, said the proposed spending level was raised twice while the bill was in committee, and the final increase represents a 7.5 percent spending boost over today's student funding.

"We did listen," Gatto said. "Is this enough money? I don't know anybody who says this is enough money. (But) I believe this is as much as we can get."

The measure now goes to the Senate, where National Education Association-Alaska president Bill Bjork says he hopes the base student allocation will be raised again.

Also on Wednesday, the House and Senate passed a compromise version of a bill on prison sentencing guidelines that would put the state in line with a U.S. Supreme Court decision made last year.

The 5-4 Blakely v. Washington decision made it illegal for a judge to impose a sentence in excess of the prison terms written into law. The Alaska bill changes those statutory prison terms from set years to a range of years.

The bill was sped through both chambers, sponsors said, because of the need for the state to quickly comply with the decision.

However, the House amended the Senate version of the bill, saying a sentence could be below the range if the offender suffers a mental disorder or disability, including fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

The Senate rejected the House amendment, and a conference committee consisting of three House and three Senate members worked out the compromise bill.

The reference to fetal alcohol spectrum disorder was removed as being too broad, and "mental disorder or disability" was changed to "mental disease or defect." The second term is defined by Alaska law, while the first is not.

The conference committee's bill passed both chambers unanimously.

In other legislative action Wednesday:

• The House passed 31-4 a Senate resolution to support opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. A separate House version being considered earlier this session had one distinct difference: It referred to an Alaska Native group that opposes drilling in the refuge because of the possible effects on a caribou herd on which the group depends.

Whether to identify the Gwich'in in the resolution was a topic of fevered debate Wednesday.

The House's original resolution read that drilling should be "conducted in a manner that protects the environment, the naturally occurring population levels of the Porcupine Caribou herd on which the Gwich'in and other local residents depend."

The Senate version that was passed removed the reference to the Gwich'in.

Several House lawmakers opposed that deletion. Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, said that to persuade people to open ANWR, the state must recognize the existence and concerns of the group.

The resolution passed the House after an attempt to return the language about the Gwich'in failed, 20-17.

Rep. Woodie Salmon, D-Beaver, voted against the resolution, and asked lawmakers to look at the effects on the fishing industry in Valdez after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

"You're talking to a Gwich'in," Salmon said. "We used to be the Alaskans, the real, true Alaskans. Now it's like we're invaded by the devil or something."

• The Senate passed a resolution urging the federal government to not cut its Medicaid contribution to the state. In October, the federal government is due to reduce the medical assistance funding it gives to Alaska by an estimated $53 million next year.

• The House passed a Senate resolution endorsing the development of methane hydrates, and asking Congress to appropriate $70 million for research and field testing.

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