Budget progressing, but not resolved yet

University funding, capital budget among remaining issues

Posted: Sunday, April 23, 2000

Numbers and politics continue to stew during the Easter weekend as budgets for state programs and highways for the coming year, plus a make-up budget for the current year, are pulled apart and put back together again.

As usual, there are quite a few cooks in this kitchen - the Capitol.

After a series of canceled meetings early last week, the joint House and Senate conference committee drafting a final budget has managed to make its 4 p.m. meetings. The six-member group has since agreed on how most of the state's money will be spent.

Sen. Sean Parnell, an Anchorage Republican and co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the operating budget is almost finished.

With $6.6 billion in total spending, including $2.2 billion in state general funds, a lot of adjustments have been made. Funding sources and programs are being mixed and matched as the House's version of a spending plan for 2001 is being folded in with the Senate's.

``We're about 85 percent complete,'' Parnell said Friday afternoon.

One item that hasn't been addressed, the University of Alaska, has raised debate between the House and Senate to a fast simmer.

How to get more money to Alaska's higher education system - using savings or general funds - won't be decided until the coming week, said Rep. Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican and co-chairman of the House Finance Committee. House Republicans will chat about it Monday morning.

Mulder said the two legislative bodies have fundamental differences on how to resolve that issue and some others.

``The only really big issue that remains is university funding,'' Mulder said Friday. ``We're going to have a caucus about university funding next week when we get back.''

The two Democrats on the conference committee generally agree with majority leaders that the budget is coming together.

The budget, said Rep. John Davies, a Fairbanks Democrat and conference committee member, contains about $2 million less in state funding for Head Start, a program for pre-elementary aged kids, than what he and Gov. Tony Knowles are seeking.

But other than that, and the logjam over how much money to spend on the University of Alaska, most of the funding Knowles wanted is showing up in the final budget, Davies said.

``Generally, the agencies have been treated reasonably well,'' he said.

However, he said, money still needs to be found to finish off the budget year that ends June 30. That budget - the supplemental budget - was funded by the House with leftover school funding made available by lower-than-expected enrollment.

But the Senate used it for the coming fiscal year in its version of the operating budget. So, that's a fly in the soup that needs to be dealt with, Davies said.

``We need a supplemental,'' he said.

Annalee McConnell, Knowles' budget director, was a bit more reserved. State employee contracts, more education funding and the university still need to be dealt with or need some help in the operating budget. The capital budget, she said, could do a lot more to address the state's big backlog of deferred maintenance.

``There certainly are pieces that need to be completed,'' she said. ``With some caveats, I guess we're seeing it (the budget) develop. I think we're poised to have a good resolution. The tools are there.''

Items still awaiting a conference committee decision, such as the university, are up in the air, she said. For McConnell, that's good.

``It's certainly encouraging that they're still open for discussion,'' she said.

Other things also help from the administration's perspective. Legislation with money attached is in the works to help offset some budget cuts, McConnell said. It seems to her lawmakers know they've cut about as much as they can without favored state programs coming to an end.

``They know that the services would have to go,'' she said.

Sen. Al Adams, a Kotzebue Democrat, is the Senate minority's representative on the conference committee. ``It's coming together wonderful,'' he said of the operating budget. The other budget, the capital budget, he said, isn't likely to come together as well.

``That's going to be one of the sticking points,'' Adams said.

Parnell said that's not his pie to bake. Rather, it's up to Rep. Gene Therriault, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, to put together the multimillion dollar supplemental budget and the nearly $1 billion capital budget for public works, which relies heavily on federal funds.

Therriault, a North Pole Republican, said this year's capital budget will include funding for projects, supplemental spending and adjustments to more general state spending. As the numbers are tallied this weekend, getting to the GOP's goal of cutting $30 million of general fund spending for 2001 is going to be tight.

``It think we're pretty much on track,'' he said. ``But we're not talking a lot of wiggle room.''

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