Kodiak Daily Mirror - School funding bill advances toward Alaska Senate vote
  
School funding bill advances toward Alaska Senate vote
by Austin Baird / Associated Press
Feb 10, 2012 | 12 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
JUNEAU (AP) — A bill that guarantees three years of increased funding to Alaska school districts was cleared Thursday for a floor vote in the Senate.

The committee made short work of moving the bill just a day after dozens of teachers, students and concerned parents crowded a Finance Committee hearing room and flooded the phones to urge passage of SB171.

The only question before the bill was moved without opposition came from Nome Democratic Sen. Donny Olson: What does Gov. Sean Parnell think about the proposed increase?

The short answer, according to Fairbanks Democratic Sen. Joe Thomas, a member of the Finance Committee who co-wrote the bill, is that Parnell doesn't like it. Parnell has said he favors a one-time shot of funding to meet specific district needs so the state retains flexibility should the state feel an economic pinch.

The Republican governor reiterated that in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday.

"I support covering cost increases for heating, for example," he said. If school districts can demonstrate they face increased heating costs, and he said he believes they can, "then the state this year can write a check, and I'm supportive of doing that for that increased cost." He said his understanding is that heating costs for next year are expected to increase by about $10 million.

With a built-in, automatic increase, such as what the bill proposes, auditors really can't tell where the money is going, he said.

"I recognize that this bill is headed for the Senate floor. But I also can tell you that there are more of us, I think, that want to address these fiscal challenges in a more responsible manner than just automatically increasing the budget every year for the next 30, 40 years," he said.

The bill would bump the current base student allocation of $5,680 by $125 next fiscal year then would continue with increases until the allowance reaches $6,070 in 2014. The expected cost to the state next year, according to a state estimate provided to the committee, is $30.6 million next year and $95.5 million each year beginning in 2014.

Supporters tout SB171 as a way to give districts long-term planning ability, though many of the bill's proponents said increases should go even a step further to keep pace with inflation.

"It's unheard of for the Finance Committee to be moving this type of legislation this early," said Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, who co-wrote the bill with Thomas.

Finance co-chair Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said the bill cleared his committee just three weeks into session in part because of its importance to districts facing budget shortfalls and in part because of time-consuming debates on the horizon.

"(Inflation) alone leads you to take a look at annual increments different agencies need just to keep up, and for districts, it's better to get a budget early," Stedman said. "We'll potentially be bogged down on the oil tax later, so we're also trying to give (the House) ample time to work on this."

Parnell said he felt it necessary to "draw a line in the sand," after several years of increases, to have a discussion about whether the state should have automatic increases without meaningful review by the Legislature.

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