Politicians argue over school construction, funding

Posted: Thursday, May 16, 2002

Disagreement between Republicans and Democrats over school construction and other education funding was a major reason for the unprecedented extension of the Legislature's regular session, a key lawmaker says.

"The specific issue is we didn't have a solution that would get three-quarters vote on the authority for expenditure in the budget process," Senate President Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican, told reporters Wednesday. "That was mostly based on trying to come up with an education package."

Lawmakers entered their first day of an overtime session Wednesday divided over more school construction in rural Alaska, operating funds to aid Bush schools, and a plan to protect power subsidies to rural areas.

Many in the Senate Republican majority say they've given enough money to those areas of state spending and object to increases in a year when they vowed to hold the line on spending in response to a budget deficit.

"The urban-rural divide is one of the major stumbling blocks to getting at this," Rep. John Davies, a Fairbanks Democrat, told The Associated Press. "It's just a total ideological impasse."

The Legislature was scheduled to adjourn at midnight Tuesday, but lawmakers voted to extend the session by two days. It was an unprecedented move, and an acknowledgment that lawmakers were far apart on those key issues.

A series of bond proposals for statewide school construction, maintenance and transportation projects evolved into a major piece aimed at ending the session.

But the Republican-controlled Legislature needs Democratic votes to access the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve and close the session with a balanced budget.

Here's where the Legislature stood Wednesday evening:

&3149; Rural schools: A $201 million school bond package includes proposals to build 11 rural schools. Democrats want to fund 19 such schools, but Republicans are opposed to that.

A municipal bond reimbursement program also tied to the package would see the state pay up to 70 percent of the cost of some urban projects. It is seen as an incentive to attract urban votes for the Bush school proposals.

Because rural villages either aren't in incorporated boroughs, and so don't have bonding powers, or are too poor to sell bonds to build or renovate schools, they rely on the Legislature to fully fund school construction.

Municipalities with the tax base and bonding authority to build their own schools usually get partial state reimbursement of the debt, often at about 70 percent.

Democrats also want the plan to include a formula of future spending that guarantees rural projects are included in future construction plans.

"I support a strong rural package," Halford told reporters. "I support an urban debt-reimbursement package. I believe that that combination does a good job for Alaska. There are arguments about how they should be tied together. It's my view that they should be tied politically, in the sense of how you get the votes.

"In the past, when we had a debt-reimbursement program, the debate between House, Senate, executive was funding 100 percent of the debt service reimbursement vs. funding the rural school list. It's not easy to create some kind of constitutional mechanism that's going to guarantee appropriation in the future. But if you create the kind of political dialogue that we had through the '80s, it works."

• Education: Democrats want $35 million put into the state's school funding formula to aid Bush schools. Republicans offered $10.7 million in grants to schools distributed on a per-student basis to all schools. Democrats argue that education costs are higher in the Bush, so those schools receive less from the one-time grants.

• Power Cost Equalization: Republicans plan to use $15.7 million from the fund to subsidize high power costs. Democrats complain it eats into the principal of the endowment. They want to use state general fund money.

Senate Republicans remained steadfast in their position throughout Wednesday. The bond proposal would put an unprecedented number of rural schools on the state's construction list, they say.

Lawmakers have until midnight today to approve a package that would close the 22nd Legislature and allow lawmakers to return to their districts.

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