Alaskans ask Senate for more education money in budget

Posted: Friday, March 24, 2000

Senate budget-writers listened to the concerns and criticisms of Alaskans last night over how the state intends to spend its money.

The Senate Finance Committee heard a lot about money for Alaska's children, education and tobacco use prevention.

In Seward, Sandy Wassilie said funding for education from kindergarten through college just wasn't enough. Due to decreased enrollments, the state's school funding formula calls for $19 million less for the 2001 fiscal year for kindergarten-through-12th-grade education.

Also, Wassilie said, the Legislature should fund the University of Alaska's request for almost $17 million more this year, which she said was needed to make up for years of neglect.

``Our education system, from kindergarten through university, has been crippled by cuts since 1986,'' Wassilie said.

Another caller asked that the Senate fund the university up front now, rather than come up with a funding mechanism later this session, as some lawmakers have pledged to do.

Majority members of both the Senate and House have put university funding aside from the operating budget, which accounts for $2.1 billion in general fund spending. As it is, the state's higher education system is funded at the same level as last year.

Sen. Sean Parnell, an Anchorage Republican and co-chairman of the Finance Committee, said he planned to bring up an option to increase university spending next week, when the committee will take up amendments to the proposed operating budget.

He said the top issues expressed Thursday evening lined up well with the top issues of Senate Republicans.

``I heard a lot of testimony in support of university funding and in support of education and early childhood programs,'' Parnell said. ``The focus seems to be on education issues, which is our top priority.''

He said people seemed to think the Senate was considering cutting some programs that, at this point, look to get more money in the 2001 spending plan. The confusion, he said, seems to be that people think anything less than increases requested by Gov. Tony Knowles is a cut.

Knowles' spending plan called for nearly $97 million more general fund spending than the current Senate plan. Much of that money went toward a variety of youth programs, which Knowles, a Democrat, said are an investment that will save the state money in the long run.

Ketchikan's Bill Hardy lamented the way money gleaned from the state's settlement with tobacco companies - expected to bring in nearly $21 million for the state budget this year - is not being spent.

Prevention programs, he said, should get 10 percent of the money to fight a problem that leads to alcohol and substance abuse among youth.

``The issue is very simple,'' Hardy said. ``This is truly a gateway drug.''

Rather than the $1.2 million the Senate's budget bill would spend on tobacco use prevention, he called for $2.8 million, to compete with the cigarette companies' marketing.

The current version of the operating budget would spend $2.1 billion in general funds and trim about $25.5 million from the existing budget. However, there are several funding issues yet to be addressed by the Legislature.

The GOP majority has pledged to cut $30 million in general funds from the budget for the 2001 fiscal year.

Some callers wanted an end to cuts, and a plan to increase state revenues for existing programs.

Unalaska Mayor Frank Kelty said residents in his town pay a lot for government, through fish taxes, and are fed up with diminished state support and budget cuts.

``We've got to get a fiscal plan for the state,'' Kelty said. ``If it takes an income tax or part of the (Alaska) Permanent Fund, so be it.''

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