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As legislative session opens, Alaska House Republicans reject attempt to override school funds veto

House Republicans are looking for a permanent fix, ‘not a Band-Aid,’ a leading lawmaker says

Alaska
ADVANCE FOR SATURDAY, JAN. 31 AND THEREAFTER - In this July 30, 2014 photo provided by the National Park Service is a small tarn in a hidden valley in the Itkillik Preserve at the Arctic National Park and Preserve in Alaska. The nation’s northernmost national park says its new management plan will have to consider the effects of a new industrial road to the mining district of Ambler, the first road that would be constructed within its Maryland-sized boundaries. (AP Photo/National Park Service, Cadence Cook)

Undeterred by more than 28 inches of new snow, Alaska’s 60 legislators convened Tuesday in Juneau and all but extinguished the idea that they would override a veto by Gov. Mike Dunleavy of $87 million in school funding.

Minutes after members of the Alaska House opened their 2024 session, they voted on whether to convene a joint session with the state Senate to consider a veto override. If successful, that override would send millions of dollars to public school districts across the state.

House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, D-Anchorage, said he has heard from constituents and educators that education is in crisis in Alaska. 

“It’s not for lack of effort by our dedicated teachers, support staff, administrators, superintendents. It’s not for a lack of effort from our parents to make sure their students have great outcomes. It’s a lack of financial support from the state of Alaska,” he said.

But Tuesday’s tally on a joint session was 20-20, one vote short of the simple majority needed in the House. All 20 “no” votes came from Republican members of the House’s majority caucus. Two Democratic members of the majority joined the minority in voting “yes,” as did Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, who is not a member of either the majority or minority.

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, said members of the majority want to focus attention on a permanent change to school funding and administration, not on the one-time bump in funding that a veto override would have provided.

“​​The finished product we want to focus on is a long-term fix and not the one-time Band-Aid,” he said.

Johnson, head of the powerful House Rules Committee, has scheduled a hearing for 4 p.m. Wednesday on a revised wide-ranging education funding bill.

In addition to a $300 per-student bump in the education funding formula — something that would amount to a decrease when compared to the one-time increase passed by the Legislature last year — the revised bill includes provisions allowing new charter schools, increased funding for homeschooled students in state-run correspondence programs, increased benefits for children who are deaf or hard of hearing, and one-time bonuses of $5,000 to $15,000 for certain teachers.

Johnson said he expects the bill to be amended and advance quickly to a final floor vote in the House. From there, it will end up in a conference committee, subject to negotiations with the Senate.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, said he expects the final increase to per-student funding will be higher than what’s being proposed by the House majority, something in the neighborhood of $680 to $1,000 per student. The actual amounts school districts receive are adjusted higher based on factors like school sizes and the number of students with special needs.

The Senate, controlled by a bipartisan supermajority, had been expected to vote overwhelmingly in favor of a joint session, but only if the House did so first.

Tuesday’s vote was simply to call a joint session, not to consider an override of the governor’s veto. 

Actually overriding a budget veto requires the votes of 45 of 60 legislators. The three-quarters vote is the highest threshold in the country. 

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said that “if invited by the House to a joint session, you’re going to see a lot of senators cast the green button to override the governor’s veto,” but support for an override in the House was lukewarm enough that an override may have failed.

Alaska’s constitution allows the Legislature five days to call a joint session for a veto override, and Schrage said the House minority will continue to seek one if the opportunity allows. The House convenes again on Thursday, which could allow time for a joint session if even one representative changes their vote.

“I encourage the body to rethink its vote,” said Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage.

Ordinary business is scheduled to open Wednesday morning in the Capitol with a series of hearings on oil and gas production.

Last year’s legislative session concluded after contentious budget negotiations between the House and Senate. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate said they hope this year will bring better relations.

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, cautioned that the education funding bill will be a test of that.

“That will be one of the key points, the bellwether of where things are going, if we can come to some reasonable accommodation and agreement on that issue,” he said.

This story was originally published in the Alaska Beacon


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