University bill sparks threats

Posted: Friday, April 07, 2000

A bill to fund the University of Alaska has prompted talk of a state government shutdown and political blackmail.

House Bill 441 was taken up today for the second time in the House Finance Committee. Following its first hearing Thursday afternoon, wider implications of the measure spurred political sparring.

The bill would draw some $206 million out of a state savings account - the Constitutional Budget Reserve - commonly called the CBR.

Using that money requires a three-quarter vote in the House and Senate, which means some Democrats have to go along with it. Such a vote to fill the annual fiscal gap in the state's budget has become an end-of-session bargaining chip.

The proposal has led to partisan wrangling.

``We are perfectly prepared to walk out of town without a CBR vote,'' said Rep. Eldon Mulder, co-chairman of the committee.

Asked if he was prepared for a state government shutdown that could occur without using the fund to fill the state's fiscal gap, the Anchorage Republican said there'd be time to deal with that later.

That vote has been the Democrats' end-of-session leverage to wring provisions out of the majority. Mulder said the GOP won't bend over the vote this year to fund programs the Democrats want funded.

``It wouldn't shut down until next spring,'' he said. ``It could be a year. Our side is not going to blackmailed by the minority to spend more money.''

Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat and House minority leader, said Mulder's use of the word blackmail didn't make much sense given the large size of the majority and the small size of the minority.

``We're not blackmailing anybody,'' Berkowitz said. ``We don't have the power to blackmail them. We continue to hope the voice of civility and reason guides policy debate.''

After efforts to change the bill to reduce the amount of money from the Constitutional Budget Reserve and remove language intended to set up measures of how the university performs, the bill moved out of committee. Reps. Ben Grussendorf, a Sitka Democrat, and Bill Williams, a Saxman Republican, voted to keep the bill in the committee.

Among those lawmakers voting to let the bill move on, several expressed their desire to let the measure wait a while, until funding for other priorities are dealt with. They mentioned funding for rural power, basic education and state employees' contracts.

The bill would give the university a $34 million fiscal shot to be used in the next two years, which has drawn the support of university President Mark Hamilton. He's also happy with funding efforts coming out of the Senate, which would mean a bit less than Mulder's measure, but would improve the university's bottom line significantly.

Wendy Redman, university spokeswoman, said either chamber's approach is fine with her.

``At this point, we really don't have a preference,'' Redman said. ``We're just really pleased that we seem to have a commitment from each side.''

Sen. John Torgerson, a Kasilof Republican and co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he's got a bill that would spread $8.5 million over vocational education programs in Alaska, including those run by the university.

Asked how Mulder's bill would be received in the Senate, Torgerson said it would be a tough sell.

``It has trouble in the Senate,'' he said. ``It's additional spending from the CBR.''

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