The state House today unanimously passed a bill to delay the high school competency test to 2004.
If the Senate concurs with House amendments to Senate Bill 133 by midnight and the measure becomes law, next year's seniors will not have to pass the reading, writing and math test to get a diploma.
The measure, similar to one approved by the Senate, also makes it easier for students with learning disabilities to get diplomas if they can't pass the exam. It also authorizes schools to waive some students from the test requirement. The bill gained momentum earlier in the session after testimony that the state would face legal challenges for forcing the requirement on kids in 2002.
"We didn't set up a system that was legally defensible. We really needed, if we were going to have a high-stakes exam, to provide every student the opportunity to learn the standards, and we just went a little bit too quickly," said Rep. Gretchen Guess, an Anchorage Democrat.
Meanwhile, other priorities of the session are still under negotiation, and Republicans have until midnight to reach an adjournment deal with Democrats, who have drawn battle lines around school dollars.
The House this morning approved the Senate's answer to education funding: a $14 million increase to the base student allocation $6 million less than a House proposal that stalled in committee. The measure, criticized as too little too late by some House Democrats, passed 29-11 with the vote mostly following party lines.
Rep. Al Kookesh on Monday pushed a failed amendment to give more money to some rural schools that lost funds under a 1998 rewrite of the education spending formula. Kookesh told lawmakers it seems all his life he has sought financial help from government as a Native in rural Alaska.
"I know some of you resent that, but we don't have anyplace else to go," said Kookesh, an Angoon Democrat. "Rural Alaska is almost at the end of its tether. I don't mind getting on my hands and knees and saying we need help, if that's what people want me to do."
In the Senate, a separate school funding bill generated little debate Monday, even though Democrats have threatened to withhold necessary votes for the operating budget unless Republicans agree to change House Bill 234. The bill would use tobacco money to fund construction of two new schools Democrats want four; it would fund nine school maintenance projects Democrats want 46. The minority is wearing buttons reading: "4-46 or fight." The Senate conceded one point Monday and amended the bill to steer 20 percent of revenue annually from a tobacco lawsuit settlement into an account to fund tobacco prevention and cessation programs.
On another front, lawmakers Monday night rejected William "Chip" Dennerlein for confirmation to the Alaska Board of Game after Rep. Scott Ogan argued the governor's appointee would oppose predator control. The governor's spokesman said Dennerlein served on a task force that approved killing predators to manage game populations and called the Legislature's rejection a "slap in the face."
Another controversial appointee was spared by lawmakers. The Legislature approved the reappointment of Bethel dentist John White to the Alaska Board of Fisheries over the objections of Rep. Drew Scalzi. The Homer Republican said the board, led by White, has made choices that were "callous and insensitive" to commercial fishermen. White later dismissed what he called "accusations" by some lawmakers.
"It was a lot of noise without substance, and I'm happy the Legislature recognized substance above noise," White said.
Meanwhile, an anti-abortion bill passed by the Senate quietly died Monday in the House. SB 210 would specify in law the constitutional right to privacy does not mean people have a right to public money, services or benefits. The bill is an attempt by Fairbanks Republican Sen. Pete Kelly to stop state funding of elective abortions for poor women. A Superior Court ruling in 1999 said it's unconstitutional to fund some pregnancy-related services but not abortion, saying that violates the right to privacy. The state is funding the procedure under court order.
Rep. Pete Kott, chairman of the House Rules Committee, declined to schedule the bill for a floor vote, saying the governor probably would veto it and that Republicans had too many questions about the language in the bill.
"We just didn't have enough time there to investigate," said Kott, an Eagle River Republican. "Rather than pass something that we weren't sure what the net effect was, we decided to hold it in committee."
There was a growing resignation Monday and into today that the Legislature is headed toward a special session, largely because of the cruise ship issue. As of late this morning, no compromise was in sight between Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles and a few Republican senators who oppose a bill to regulate cruise ship pollution and levy a $1 fee per passenger.
Knowles strongly implied he would call a special session if the bill isn't passed.
Senate Majority Leader Loren Leman, an Anchorage Republican, told Michele Brown, the commissioner of environmental conservation, that a special session would be "a big waste of time." In the conversation Monday, Leman said he didn't have any problems with the bill, so Brown said he should work to ensure its passage.
Brown said that the administration has agreed to changes in the bill that would phase in the environmental protection requirements for commercial vessels carrying more than 50 passengers but fewer than 250. The U.S. Cruise Ship Association sought those amendments, one of the reasons that Senate Transportation Chairman John Cowdery, an Anchorage Republican, gave for not advancing the bill over the weekend. However, association President Randy Ray testified in favor of the bill generally.
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Empire reporter Bill McAllister contributed to this report.