By GARY WILKEN
A few days ago, spirits were running high in the education community because the Democrats in the House of Representatives had sold everyone on the idea that they had passed a bill (House Bill 287) that early funded K-12 education. Such an event does indeed represent forward progress on K-12 funding, but unfortunately, they didn’t.
After passage of HB 287, Rep. Scott Kawasaki was quoted in the Daily News Miner as saying:
“Basically, what the vote meant yesterday is that we were putting our money where our mouth is: funding education in its entirety.”
If by funding education in its entirety Scott means the bill made a 90 percent reduction — yes, 90 percent — in education funding and included zero money for the public education foundation formula, then unfortunately, he was correct.
Rep. Kawasaki wasn’t alone in his misplaced enthusiasm. The Democrat majority’s press release on HB 287, dated Feb. 7 and released immediately after passage, stated:
“Tonight, the Alaska House of Representatives passed legislation to early fund Alaska’s K-12 public education system … HB 287 appropriates $1.32 billion for K-12 public education, the same amount as proposed by Gov. (Bill) Walker, and includes $1.2 billion from the Constitutional Budget Reserve.”
As a longtime supporter of our K-12 education system and a fan of early education funding, I wish this were indeed true.
What the House Democrats actually passed was a bill with botched language that appropriates only 10 percent of what’s required to fund K-12 education.
In fact, the bill is completely void of any reference at all supporting $1.2 billion expenditure required for K-12 education, or, for that matter, any fund source for this critical expenditure.
In a further blunder, the bill that passed directs a small amount of money specifically to pupil transportation and to Mt. Edgecumbe School.
So, if your kids need a ride to a school in Sitka — the House Democrat Finance Committee has you covered. Where were our Interior representatives in this debacle? Asleep at the wheel?
This mess was created because the Democrats chose to fund education from the Constitutional Budget Reserve, 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, and 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 Democrats shot it down. As a result, the backstop wasn’t included and there is no funding for the education formula in the legislation that on Friday was transmitted to the Senate. Our Fairbanks Democrats joined in voting it down, led by Rep. Kawasaki and Rep. David Guttenberg, both of them Finance Committee members.
As a former co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I’m aware of the wealth of information available to these folks from extremely competent professionals attached to the House and Senate 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. Our local representatives need to take their game up a notch. Our local representatives should have known better, and Fairbanks has every right to expect better.
We are a community that should be proud of producing seven Senate presidents, including the current one – Sen. Pete Kelly — and nine chairs of Senate Finance, a list that includes Sen. Kelly as well. Sen. Kelly is relevant to this discussion because the only hope of fixing this nonsense will be in the Senate with Sen. Kelly and his crew of competent professionals.
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 has lived in Fairbanks for 62 years, and was a state senator for Fairbanks and Fort Wainwright from 1997 to 2009. He was a member of the Senate Finance Committee for eight years, co-chairing for four years.