JUNEAU, Alaska — After blowing past midnight on what was supposed to be the last day of session, Alaska lawmakers planned to plow on with their work on Monday in a bid to resolve their differences on education.
Education has been a sticking point between the House and Senate, with the two sides taking very different approaches to additional proposed funding. While lawmakers said they had come to agreement on $100 million in additional funding, with some in the per-pupil funding formula known as the base student allocation and some outside, Senate Rules Chairwoman Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said details still had to be decided.
She told reporters in the Capitol early Monday that she would prefer to have some rest time before tackling debate on what has been one of the biggest issues of this session. But she said there was an impasse on that point, too.
Lawmakers knew that if they ran past midnight, the placement of initiatives on this year's ballot could be affected. Alaska's primary date moved up a week, to Aug. 19 this year, under a bill passed last session. Legislative attorney Alpheus Bullard, in a memo last month to Senate Minority Leader Hollis French, said if the session lasts beyond 90 days, the three initiatives slated to appear on the primary ballot will get bumped to the next statewide election. A special legislative session, if called instead, would not affect the placement of the initiatives, he said.
"We'd like to get out of here," said House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski. He blamed the Senate for dragging its feet on passing bills the last few days, while the House had been meeting — sometimes until late in the day — to churn through bills on the floor.
Sunday, what was supposed to be the last day of session, was marked by delayed meetings and leadership talks. A group of Alaska Natives gathered for a sit-in outside McGuire's office, calling for Senate passage of a bill that would symbolically make Alaska Native languages official languages of the state. This being the last session of this Legislature, any bill not passed will die. They later moved to the second floor — where the House and Senate chambers are — the pulsating beat of the drums they played reverberating through the tension-filled air, and they filled the Senate gallery, waiting for the bill to be brought up for consideration well into the early morning hours.
The day began with the House Finance Committee meeting briefly on the capital budget, which was expected to be the vehicle for additional education funding after lawmakers closed out the operating budget late Saturday night. The committee planned to meet later in the morning to consider amendments but didn't gavel back in until after 3 p.m. Work, however, was not completed until hours later, when the bill — with little explanation of what was in it — emerged early Monday morning. It did not include an amendment for additional education funding, though co-chairman Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, said he expected that to be added on the House floor.
The House, which broke mid-debate on a crime bill to allow Finance to go back in to wrap up the budget, first went on the floor Sunday afternoon. The Senate didn't convene until late Sunday night. In-between trying to make headway on education, lawmakers moved other major pieces of legislation, including the operating budget and bills to advance a major liquefied natural gas project and address the state's pension obligation; they took up smaller bills, too.
Gov. Sean Parnell, who met with legislative leaders in an effort to try to bring them together, said both sides had done a lot of good work and all involved wanted to wrap things up as soon as possible.
"We all have worked hard for new educational opportunity, new funding for education and moving on those other priorities," he said, referring to the gas line and pension bills. "And as I said, with those substantial gains we've made, we all want to cross the goal line for Alaskans together."
The House, in its rewrite of Parnell's education bill, House Bill 278, increased the per-student funding formula by about $300 over three years, in addition to providing $30 million in one-time aid to be split among districts outside the formula.
The Senate Finance Committee proposed $100 million in additional school aid outside the formula for each of the next three years. That was on top of support for other initiatives and programs such as charter, residential and correspondence schools. The $100 million was not attached to the committee's version of HB 278, and co-chairman Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, had expected it to be attached to a budget bill.
Groups like the parent-supported Great Alaska Schools, Alaska Federation of Natives and NEA-Alaska called for an increase in funding through the formula over what the House proposed, as a way to help districts stave off cuts and be able to plan ahead better. Becca Bernard with Great Alaska Schools likened the Senate approach to someone in a financial pinch getting a onetime bonus when they need a permanent raise.
There have been discussions off and on this session about the funding formula, which some lawmakers believe is broken or overdue for another look. The Senate Finance version of the education bill called for a study of how the state funds education.
That wasn't the only provision in the bill that caused some heartburn, including among fellow senators. There was also a provision that would raise the required local contribution level for schools and allow parents to use student allotments through public correspondence programs to buy materials and services from public, private or religious organizations if they are required for a course in a student's individual learning plan, approved by a district and in line with state standards.