Majorities in the state house on Thursday reinstated an 11% increase in funding for education next year on the condition that the minority provide the votes needed to balance the budget by tapping into a reserve fund.
The action came after a chaotic Wednesday at the Capitol that saw the entire minority caucus leave the building for four hours over the education funding crisis, with accusations such as “holding our children hostage” voiced when they returned over what turned out to be a de facto filibuster until adjourned for the day. .
Thursday’s session began with numerous speeches by lawmakers that included some apologies for the previous day’s behavior, but divisions and hard feelings over issues related to the standoff remain. The opening call before the debate by Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikkiye, cited the psalm with the well-known reference to children having the power to defeat enemies.
He said: “From the mouths of infants and infants, silence your opponents, to silence the enemy and the avenger.”
The proposal to restore the education increase makes a slight change from a proposal passed by the House of Representatives by a vote of 39-1 on Monday, in which the increase was not tied to minority support for tapping into the reserve fund. A one-time increase is also void if a permanent increase in the student’s base allocation is approved during the session.
Minority members, while not participating in Wednesday’s stalling tactics, spoke at length about their displeasure with the majority’s approach.
Rep. Andy Story, a Juneau Democrat, successfully sponsored a provision in a bill that would increase desktop space in a two-year phase, allowing counties to give notice about what their funding would be.
Another representative for Southeast Alaska on the House Education Committee, Independent Rebecca Hemshutt, expressed disappointment about the temporary and unconfirmed increase.
“I look forward to the day when we can provide our regions with the funding they need in a stable and predictable way,” she said. “This is not that day.”
But members of the majority pointed out that it is one of the largest increases in funding for education in the history of the state, and it is the minority that puts it at risk by trying to link it to other aspects of the budget and the long-term financial plan.
“The yes vote supports Alaska,” said Rep. Delina Johnson, the Palmer Republican who co-chairs the House Finance Committee, who introduced the conditional refund Thursday. “Vote yes funds education. Vote yes supports our children.”
The vote to approve the conditional increase was 23-17 along majority-minority straight lines, with unaffiliated Republican Representative David Eastman of Anchorage voting in the minority.
The proposed one-time increase in education funding would cost $175 million — far less than what educators and Senate and House minority leaders have persistently sought — and would increase the projected shortfall to $600 million. The majority’s plan is to cover this by tapping into the constitutional budget reserve, which contains nearly $2 billion. But that would require a vote of three-quarters of both the House and Senate, which means support from at least some minority members of the House is necessary. .
The minority caucus says it will not submit votes to tap the reserve unless education funding is increased in a way that guarantees it priority over the earnings of the Permanent Fund if there is a shortage of available funds. In practice, this means that personal finance costs of about $2,700 in the majority’s current budget would be about $1,300 with a funding mechanism proposed by the minority in the event of a deficit.
Nearly all minority members staged the strike late Wednesday morning to prevent the House from voting to defund, because House Minority Leader Calvin Schrag’s call to action means all members need to show up. But House Speaker Cathy Tilton ruled the minority’s actions were a stalling tactic in breach of parliamentary rules and absent members were given until 3pm to return when voting resumed.
The actual hold-up continued after members of minorities returned, introducing and re-introducing a barrage of adjustments and other measures related to the provision of education funding. Tempers flared, with Schrage at one point requesting that the House Rules be formally suspended because he claimed they were not being followed anyway, and eventually Tilton adjourned for the day at 6 pm to allow passions to cool.
The full budget is due to be debated by the House of Representatives during Monday’s session, after leaders gave up hope of completing work on it by Thursday so that members can get through the long Easter weekend.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at [email protected]