Late last week, spirits were running high in the education community because members of the House of Representatives had sold everyone on the idea that they had passed a bill (HB 287) which early funded K-12 education. That event does indeed represent forward progress on K-12 funding, but unfortunately, they didn’t.
What the House majority actually passed was a bill with botched language that appropriates only 10 percent of what’s required to fund K-12 education. It’s completely void of any reference at all to a supporting $1.2 billion expenditure required for K-12 education, or, for that matter, any funding source for this critical expenditure. In a further blunder, the bill which passed directs a small amount of money specifically to pupil transportation and to Mt. Edgecombe. So, if your kids need a ride to a school in Sitka – the House Finance Committee has you covered. For the rest of Alaska, not a nickel.
This mess was created because the house majority chose to fund education from the Constitutional Budget Reserve (CBR), which requires 30 votes in the House. If 30 affirmative votes are not cast, the language automatically is deleted from the bill because a funding source has not been identified. “Backstop language” is then added to make sure something as important as this ultimately gets funded in some manner. All this language isn’t exactly rocket science, there have been examples of it in practically every budget for decades. It should have been a no-brainer.
However, when the Republicans offered the amendment on the House floor to fix this glaring error and thereby assure a funding source for early education, the House majority shot it down. As a result, the backstop wasn’t included and there is no funding for the education formula in the legislation that last Friday was transmitted to the Senate.
As a former co-chair of Finance, I’m aware of the wealth of information available to these folks from extremely competent professionals attached to the legislative Finance Committees. However, if you don’t or won’t listen to the pros who work for you, you get what you deserve.
There’s some explaining to be done. The House majority needs to take their game up a notch. Funding sources are the bedrock of our budget process and to take them lightly, particularly on such an important piece of legislation as early funding of K-12 education, should be concerning to all Alaskans. When Representative Seaton (co-chair of House Finance), quite cavalierly explains away the carelessness of the House by saying, “It was kind of silly to project that the Senate Finance Committee would not be able to figure out how to add a funding source…,” I have to question Representative’s participation in playing fast and loose with decades of the State of Alaska’s budget process. The State budget: inarguably the only mandatory duty imposed on the legislature by our Constitution and most important task our elected leaders must perform.
Hopefully the Senate will be able to use this somewhat useless appropriation bill to correct the House’s negligence and actually get this issue straightened out so that educators, parents, and children can really rely on early funding for education, a goal sought by all supporters of Alaska’s outstanding K-12 system.
Gary Wilken is a 62-year resident of Fairbanks, a retired small businessman, and represented Fairbanks and Fort Wainwright in the state Senate from 1997- 2009. He was a member of senate finance for 8 years, 4 as co-chair.