Lawmakers fast-track bill to avoid paying Anchorage bonds

  • By Molly Dischner
  • Wednesday, March 25, 2015 11:05pm
  • News

JUNEAU — Lawmakers are attempting to fast-track a bill so the state won’t have to help pay for $59 million in school bonds in Alaska’s largest district.

The Senate on Wednesday approved a measure that would retroactively halt the state’s practice of partially reimbursing municipalities for school bonds issued after Jan. 1, 2015. If the bill passes, the state would resume reimbursements for new bonds beginning in July 2020 at a lower rate.

Anchorage voters on April 7 will decide the multimillion-dollar bond package.

Sens. Johnny Ellis and Bill Wielechowski, both Anchorage Democrats, said it’s unfair to change the policy because voting is already underway in Anchorage. They voted against the legislation.

“This causes all kinds of confusion,” Wielechowski said.

The projects had already gone through an approval process that included a determination that they were eligible for partial reimbursement by the state, Wielechowski said.

In information published on its website, the Anchorage School District has said the state would reimburse the municipality for 60 percent to 70 percent of the bonds.

Other lawmakers, however, said it’s not fiscally responsible for the state to agree to pay for any more projects because Alaska is facing a $3.5 billion deficit amid dramatically lower oil prices.

For this current budget year, the state is on the hook to spend $126.6 million reimbursing municipalities for bonds they are paying off.

Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, said she doesn’t want the state to spend even more to reimburse new projects given the state’s budget issues.

“This is about controlling our expenses,” MacKinnon said, noting that school districts already were aware that reimbursement was dependent on the state’s ability to pay.

Anchorage School District spokeswoman Heidi Embley said if the bill becomes law, the bonds currently under consideration won’t receive state reimbursement as expected. “We did receive approval from the state that the projects did qualify,” Embley said.

Embley said the district has added a section on its website to let people know about the proposed change.

Wielechowski also introduced two amendments, but both failed. One amendment would have pushed the date to stop new reimbursements to July. The other amendment would have shortened the time period during which new bonds were not reimbursed, and would not lower the reimbursement rate once they were reinstated.

The bill still needs House approval and Gov. Bill Walker’s signature before April 7 to nullify a state match, if Anchorage voters approve the bonds.

Grace Jang, a spokeswoman for Walker, couldn’t say whether the governor would sign the bill in time if it passes, or veto it, because he generally doesn’t comment on legislation before it reaches his desk.

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