By James Brooks
The Alaska House of Representatives voted Monday to increase the amount of money the state pays K-12 schools per student in the 2023-2024 school year.
The vote came as legislators opened floor debate on the state’s operating budget for the 12 months that begin July 1. That debate is expected to continue Tuesday.
In addition to boosting school funding, the House on Monday voted to restore funding for a proposal that would have the state take over a federal program that regulates construction permits in wetland areas, and it confirmed House lawmakers’ support for a $2,700 Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.
The increase to K-12 funding, not yet final, is another step in ongoing negotiations about the proper amount of state funding for public schools here.
The state’s per-student funding formula, known as the base student allocation, hasn’t changed since 2017, and school districts have implored lawmakers for additional funding, saying that inflation has robbed the funding formula of its value, forcing them to cut staff and programs.
Monday’s 39-1 vote on an amendment from Rep. Delena Johnson, R-Palmer and co-chair of the House Finance Committee, adds almost $175 million to the latest draft of the state budget. That’s enough to increase the BSA by $860, to $6,610 per student. That amount is multiplied for students with special needs and those in rural areas. “It was our effort to listen to the many people around the state who are calling for education funding,” said Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna.
The increase wasn’t as large as the one requested by school districts and doesn’t involve a permanent change to the state’s funding formula.
Johnson said a permanent increase is unlikely to pass the Legislature this year, requiring temporary action by the Legislature.
If a permanent change — proposed in separate pieces of legislation in both the House and Senate — does pass the Legislature and is signed by the governor, it would replace the one-time increase approved Monday. “I believe there is more work to be done,” Johnson said.
But for the moment, legislative advocates said it’s a positive step for public schools.
“I give it my full support,” said Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan and the sponsor of a bill that proposes a permanent increase to public-school funding.
Dividend holds at $2,700
As of Monday evening, the budget under consideration in the House has a deficit estimated at about $600 million, which would be covered with spending from the Constitutional Budget Reserve, a $2 billion savings account. Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, proposed cutting this year’s permanent fund dividend from $2,700 to $1,350 per recipient, an act that would save about $800 million.
“It is a solution to balance the budget this year. A free ride dies hard, and it’s not going away any time soon, and we need to make sure we can pay our bills,” she said.
House lawmakers voted against her amendment, 12-28.
Wetlands program advances
The House voted 22-18 to restore $4.9 million that would pay for the state’s takeover of a federal permitting program that governs construction in wetlands.
Supporters of the idea say that it could lead to faster permitting for small construction projects. Opponents say the state is grossly understating the cost of the proposal.
The takeover is supported by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who included it in his version of this year’s budget, but members of the House Finance Committee removed funding for the proposal from the budget and redirected that money to the education program Head Start.
On Monday afternoon, the House failed to pass an amendment adding $5 million to the budget to pay for the takeover. That amendment, from Rep. Mike Cronk, R-Tok, failed by a single vote, 20-20.
Hours later, House Majority Leader Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River, proposed to pay for the takeover by diverting $5 million from the state’s community assistance fund, which pays grants to cities and boroughs.
That amendment passed, 22-18, which would leave the takeover’s fate in the hands of the Alaska Senate, which has yet to consider the operating budget.
This article originally appeared online at alaskabeacon.com. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.