Senate moves education funding bill

Posted: Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Over objections from Democrats, the state Senate gave preliminary approval Monday to a bill linking a $70 million increase in education funding with retirement reform legislation.

Democrats tried to amend the bill, increasing per-student funding to $111 million and removing a provision that makes more than half of the proposed increase contingent upon approval of a retirement reform bill for state employees and teachers.

The amendment died on a party line vote of 8-12.

The provision linking the education funding increase to the reform bill was added into the bill in the Senate Finance Committee last week. The education funding proposal, House Bill 1, by Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, aleady has been approved by the House of Representatives.

Under the education funding bill that was given preliminary approval Monday, schools would lose $38 million if the Legislature does not pass the retirement reform bill.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said that tying the two pieces of legislation together shows the weakness of the retirement reform bill, calling it "$38 million worth of sugar" to attract votes for the reform bill.

Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, said the Legislature has other responsibilities to the state than just education funding. He said more than half of the education funding this year - $38 million - would pay teacher and public employee retirement costs.

The $16.4 billion retirement system is underfunded by $5 billion, according to the Senate Finance Committee. New employees would receive lower health benefits and retirement pensions under one retirement reform proposal, Senate Bill 141.

"If we just keep ignoring it, do we serve the public?" Therriault asked.

Sen. Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage, said she is not convinced there is a problem with the retirement system. She said it is irresponsible to vote on a measure lawmakers have not had a chance to review.

Democrats filed their intention to hold a final vote on the issue later this week.

If approved, the bill would head back to the House of Representatives for another vote. If the House rejects the changes the measure would go before a conference committee where the two bodies would work out the differences between the two education funding proposals.

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