House passes education bill by large margin, but not its funding source

 House Finance Committee Co-Chair Paul Seaton, R-Homer,  reviews a document during a hearing
House Finance Committee Co-Chair Paul Seaton, R-Homer, reviews a document during a hearing (KTUU)
Published: Feb. 7, 2018 at 11:31 PM AKST
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The House overwhelmingly approved an early funding for education bill Wednesday, but when it came time to vote for the money to pay for it, the House came up short.

Most Republicans joined all House Democrats to vote in favor of the bill, 33-3.

But in the vote for the second half of the measure — paying $1.2 billion for education from the dwindling Constitutional Budget Reserve — the House came up short of the three-fourths super majority it needed. The second vote was 20-16, with the bipartisan House majority voting in favor and the House Republican minority against.

The bill, House Bill 287, was the idea of House majority member Paul Seaton of Homer, one of three Republicans in the 22-member majority coalition.

Seaton has said the bill was born during a meeting in Seward of state school superintendents in November. The school officials complained about the Legislature’s lack of diligence in approving a budget — not only was their planning made difficult, but in each of the past three years, the budget was so late that schools were required by state law to notify their tenured teachers that they would be laid off.

To avoid that happening again, Seaton, a co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, split the main school budget from the rest of the state’s operating budget, named it HB 287, and moved it quickly through House committees and onto the floor.

Seaton said the Constitutional Budget Reserve was the only pot of money big enough to pay for education, aside from the Permanent Fund’s earning reserves. He put the draw from the CBR into the bill — even though it would take a three-fourths vote of the House and the Senate to use it.

The bill had strong support from his coalition partners. But Republicans complained about splitting up the budget. And they said it gave the appearance that lawmakers were giving up hope for completing their business in 90 days. A budget in 90 days would forestall automatic layoff notices to teachers.

But on Wednesday, when it came time to vote, most of those Republicans said they supported the measure, just not its funding mechanism.

“I really applaud the authors of this bill,” said Rep. Jennifer Johnston, a Republican from Anchorage.

“I can see why you would want to say to our communities and the state that we value education, and particularly after last year’s long, drawn-out budget process,” she added. “I think this is a worthy concept, but I’m concerned about the funding source.”

She proposed amending the bill to use regular unrestricted revenue, which in good years, when the state was rich, came mostly from oil taxes and oil royalties. Her amendment failed along coalition lines.

Passage of the bill without its main source of funding sends it to the Republican-led Senate and a challenging future. Senate leaders have said the bill isn’t necessary and were wary about touching the Constitutional Budget Reserve.