Senate Education chairman wants budget by April 1

  • From left, Alaska state Sens. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, and Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, sit in the House chamber to hear Gov. Bill Walker deliver his annual State of the State address on Jan. 18, 2017. After several years of budgets passing late and forcing education pink slip notices, Stevens, the Senate Education Committee chair, is introducing a bill to mandate an education budget by April 1. (Photo/Mark Thiessen/AP)

April 1 would become a new self-imposed deadline for the Alaska Legislature to pass the education budget if a bill pre-filed by Sen. Gary Stevens becomes law.

School districts may favor such an idea after three years of not knowing their budgets until well after their school years ended. State law requires layoff notices in two tiers — one for tenured and one for regular teachers — prior to the end of the school year, which is generally the third week of May.

“We adhere to a highly regulated system of dates and statutory requirements,” Anchorage District School Superintendent Deena Bishop said Jan. 8. “Dates become nested in the requirements, and we risk not fulfilling the mandates” when budget numbers aren’t known in timely fashion.

Stevens, R-Kodiak, pre-filed Senate Bill 131, which would require the legislature to pass the education budget by April 1. Under current law, Alaska’s governor must meet a deadline of Dec. 15 to file an operating and capital budget for the following fiscal year, but the legislature has no state-mandated budget-passing deadline. Since 2015, the legislature has blown past its 90-day regular session and 120-constitutional session limit without passing a budget.

In 2017, the operating budget wasn’t passed by the legislature until June 22.

The Anchorage School Board and other district superintendents presented their 2018 legislative priorities to the Alaska Legislature in early December. This time, in addition to talking about losing to inflation during years of flat funding, the districts also were invited to talk about what deadlines are mandated by law that they are required to hold in place staffing and teacher positions.

Stevens, who chairs the Senate Education Committee and is also a member of the Finance Committee, said he felt it was “time to pass an education budget so that districts aren’t forced to pink slip teachers that they hire back when the budget is passed.”

Last year, the $1.4 billion education budget left funding at status quo levels to the previous year, but a proposed $69 million cut in the Senate’s budget plan left school administrators sitting on “too many unknowns,” he said.

Many states do multiple budgets, Stevens noted. The Legislature already splits the process into three separate budgets: the mental health, capital and operating budgets.

An independent committee system is in place to go through each annual education budget plan, he said. And several states do handle their education budgets separate from other state operations.

“It does create some concerns I have,” Stevens said. “Handling it early may be an attempt to reduce the budget along with everything else. But if we could get the basic money out, then they could add in funding that becomes available later on.”

Getting a new system for education funding decisions earlier in the year could be done in one of two ways, Stevens said.

One is the bill process. Stevens’ SB 131 may travel through the Senate independently, or become paired with similar legislation proposed (but not yet filed) in the House by Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer.

The two legislators have “talked about doing this for a number a years,” Stevens said, in seeking a mechanism for finishing school budgets sooner.

“Or it could be taken up at the Finance table,” Stevens said.

This would bypass the lengthy bill vetting system and allow the Legislature to propose and pass a stand-alone education budget for educators this year sometime in April.

If taken on the Finance Committee route, the budget could be debated in early February and March, allowing it to move to floors of the Senate and House.

“That could be done early and really force the focus,” Stevens said. “(This bill) begins the debate and discussion, lets all sides have their say about what impact it has when budgets aren’t known and how we can fix this.”

Six years ago, Stevens said he introduced a similar bill. In fact, he could dust off the sponsor statement to that bill, and it would be the same for SB 131, he said.

“But interestingly, many of the districts opposed it,” he said. “They believed they would gain more funding if they waited until the final days of the Legislature. But we can adjust the funding later in the session.”

The advantage of going the Finance Committee route is that changes could be enacted this year in the production of an earlier budget. But it wouldn’t enshrine in law an education budget deadline, he added.

Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, chair of the House Education Committee and former chair of the Anchorage School Board, said she likes the concept of a speedier education budget process and will work with members of the House toward that end.

“We should be done with the budget before the end of the school year,” she said.

It’s becoming too common to stretch past the 120-day constitutional limit for the regular legislative session. In fact, this year landlords leasing apartments to legislators handed out 120-day leases, she said, instead of offering the 90-day ones they did in the past.

The Legislature “playing at brinkmanship with the budget isn’t smart at all. It unnecessarily upsets people,” Drummond said.

In Anchorage, of the 200 people handed layoff notices in 2017, “almost everyone of them was rehired. It’s already hard to get teachers here. We no longer have good salaries. What’s to attract them if they get treated like this?”


Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].

01/10/2018 - 10:09am