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Alaska governor says he will veto education package unless lawmakers adopt his priorities

Iris Samuels and Sean Maguire, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska on

Published in News & Features

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Tuesday that he would veto an education funding package approved by the Alaska Legislature unless lawmakers adopt his top education priorities by the middle of March.

"It's half a coin. It's a three-legged horse, meaning it's not going to run very far," Dunleavy said. "We can fix that."

Dunleavy's comments set up what is likely to be two tense weeks in the Capitol. Lawmakers had already gone through tough negotiations to agree on the funding bill they had adopted, and some indicated soon after Dunleavy's news conference that further negotiations were not guaranteed to yield the result that the governor sought.

The governor's priorities include a provision to pay Alaska teachers annual bonuses of between $5,000 for urban schools and $15,000 for rural schools — at a cost of around $59 million per year — as well as a provision that would allow additional charter schools to be approved by a state board of education made up of the governor's appointees.

The provisions were kept out of a bill that lawmakers adopted to add roughly $175 million annually to the state's education budget. The amount was less than half of what education advocates said was needed to account for more than six years without a permanent increase to the formula used to calculate per-student funding.

The package, approved overwhelmingly by lawmakers after days of back-and-forth, also includes around $10 million annually for assisting kids in kindergarten through third grade in learning to read; $14.5 million for home-schooled students; $7.5 million for student transportation; a provision to increase internet speeds for schools; and a charter school coordinator position.

During an hourlong news conference held in Anchorage on Tuesday, Dunleavy said he wanted lawmakers to pass his priorities to earn support for what they had agreed on so far. Under state law, the governor has until March 14 to either sign or veto the bill.

"I think we get both things across the finish line, but if for some reason we don't, then that'll be it for reform in Alaska, I think, for years," Dunleavy said.

Dunleavy repeatedly cited an Anchorage Daily News editorial published earlier in the month that he said backed his calls for teacher bonuses, the expansion of charter schools and a modest boost to the per-student funding formula with an emphasis on putting money into classrooms. The ADN editorial board operates independently from the newsroom.

Alaska's threshold for overriding a governor's veto — two-thirds of lawmakers — is one of the highest in the nation. In a vote last month, lawmakers failed to override Dunleavy's veto of more than $87 million in one-time funding from the current education budget.

Shortly after Dunleavy's news conference, leaders of the bipartisan majority in the Senate indicated they would try to work with the governor though it would be hard to meet his demands.

"A lot of what was asked for was gotten in the negotiation process and that was proven by the fact that 56 out of 60 legislators supported the bill. That's pretty unheard-of these days on a controversial bill like that," said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat.

"I just don't know that there's a whole lot of room there for much movement because everybody's given a lot already, and once you start pushing it a little bit further in any direction, you start to lose people in the other direction," Wielechowski added.

The governor's teacher bonus provision was voted on by House members during a floor session last week. It failed in a 20-20 vote, with support only from the Republicans in the House majority.

The negotiation process over the bill comes at a critical time for school districts across the state — many of which must finalize their budgets in the coming days and weeks amid millions of dollars in budget gaps.

The Anchorage School Board was set to vote on a budget Tuesday night for the upcoming school year while facing a nearly $100 million deficit. Board members have said it's difficult to resolve that deficit without knowing how much school funding will come from the state.

Anchorage School Board president Margo Bellamy issued a prepared statement after the governor's news conference and said it was clear Dunleavy would not sign the education bill as written.

"We hope that he and the Legislature can come to an agreement within the next 14 days," she said.

Several legislators said that Dunleavy added more uncertainty Tuesday by urging the Legislature to pass education policies now and then discuss how to fund those policies later.

"Everything that people would like to have put into a budget is probably not going to get funded. And some of that may include some of these pieces," Dunleavy said, before insisting that "a substantial BSA" would be paid this year without naming a figure he would support.


Senate President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, said he was concerned that the governor's attitude was "It's my way or the highway." Stevens also expressed concern that he was "honestly not sure what the governor's demands are."

"Is he willing to compromise? Or is he saying, 'I get ... everything I want and you have to accept that?'" said Stevens. "That's going to be a problem for us."

Lawmakers also have raised concerns that the roughly $200 million education package that passed the Legislature would already strain state finances. There are other major spending items still to be considered, including the Permanent Fund dividend.

Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said legislators would be getting an updated fiscal picture on Thursday, but a projected surplus had been "quickly banished" by planned spending. He said education policy changes would need to be sustainable if they were added to the baseline budget considered by the Legislature each year.

Some lawmakers have shown an interest in approving a version of bonuses for teachers to ensure the other elements in the bill pass into law.

Sitka independent Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, a former teacher and member of the Democrat-dominated House minority, said she was open to bonuses for educators but said they should also go to non-certified support staff like custodians and bus drivers.

"We have pressures, workforce pressure is on both categories," she said, arguing that a BSA boost would let school boards decide how they wanted to recruit and retain staff.

Nikiski Republican Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, another former teacher, has a measure that advanced from one legislative committee that would pay teachers a $5,000 bonus to obtain a national teaching certification.

Tom Klaameyer, president of NEA-Alaska, said he felt "frustration and disappointment" after the governor said he would not sign the education bill as written.

"I'm glad, on the other hand, that he didn't outright veto the bill," he said. "So I guess reading between the lines, there leaves room for conversation, which is a good thing, right?"

Klaameyer voiced support for a teacher bonus proposal like the one proposed by Bjorkman and urged legislators to vote to override Dunleavy's education veto — if that came to pass.

The bipartisan education package was approved on Thursday evening on a 38-2 vote. Despite that vote tally, it remained unclear if there would be enough House members to support a potential veto override vote.

Rep. Craig Johnson, an Anchorage Republican, last week voted in support of the bipartisan education package. He said on Tuesday afternoon that he hadn't watched Dunleavy's news conference, and after weeks of work on the education bill, he was ready to move on to other pieces of legislation.

"But I also want good policy. If some of the stuff was left out, we need to address it," said Johnson.

Three non-Republican members of the House majority have been more closely aligned with the 16 members of the Democrat-dominated minority in supporting a substantial school funding boost this year and opposing Dunleavy's more contentious education proposals.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham independent and member of the House majority who opposed several of Dunleavy's provisions, said lawmakers "went from a position of great relief after a combined 56-to-3 vote on a very contentious bill to a 'where do we go from here now' sort of picture."

"It's going to be very difficult I think for the Legislature to pivot and come back with legislation in a couple of weeks' time between now and the date when the governor has to make a decision on the bill, so I don't know where we go," said Edgmon.

Lawmakers had been racing to get the education bill signed into law by Feb. 28, so eligible schools could apply for grants to boost their internet download speeds to 100 megabytes per second. But Dunleavy said that the deadline was actually weeks away.

The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development on Tuesday sent a memo to school administrators, telling them that they need to file applications by Feb. 28. But they would then have roughly another month before a legislative change was needed to get funding for the higher broadband speeds.

(c)2024 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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