Alaska Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, presides over the first day of the second session of the Alaska Legislature on Jan. 16, 2024. (Eric Stone/Alaska Public Media)
Debates over education funding dominated as lawmakers gathered in Juneau Tuesday for the start of this year’s legislative session.
Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said a boost to the base per-student funding known as the base student allocation, or BSA, was the top priority for his caucus.
“We took the lead on funding education and certainly support a BSA increase,” Stevens told reporters. “But right at this point, you know, we’re awaiting to hear from the House what their plans are.”
Last year, the Senate passed a bill that would have boosted base per-student public school funding by $1,000. After negotiations with the House, the Legislature settled on a one-year funding increase equivalent to roughly $680 – and that was ultimately cut in half in a veto by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
Many members of his caucus would support overriding the veto, Stevens said. House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, called on his colleagues to do so.
“What we’ve heard from many, loud and clear, is that education is in crisis in Alaska,” Schrage said on the House floor.
While the budget that included a $680 increase passed 26-14 amid fears of a government shutdown, Tuesday’s vote to set up a veto override failed 20 to 20.
Three rural Democrats and independents in the Republican-led majority caucus split with their colleagues to vote in favor. Lawmakers have five days to override the veto, and Schrage said he plans to try again soon.
House Speaker Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, said her caucus doesn’t believe it should focus on a one-time funding boost.
“We are looking at a solution to put forward for public education in the full umbrella of what that looks like and not just laser-focused on a one time increase,” Tilton said at a news conference.
Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, who chairs the House Rules Committee, said he plans to advance a bill that would provide a $300 boost to base per-student funding and address other education priorities.
“We’re going to take a whack at the apple and some of the things that we want to see in terms of accountability, some things we want to see in terms of correspondence schools, transportation. There’s also the teacher retention bonuses that the governor has introduced, will also be in this bill, which is direct pay to teachers,” Johnson said.
Schrage, the minority leader, said the $300 increase falls short of the $380 in one-time funding approved last year.
“If the proposal as outlined today were to pass, it would be a cut to education,” Schrage said.
And leaders in the Senate say they support a larger increase. Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, said he expected the Senate’s budget to include a significantly higher per-student funding boost.
“In my experience, whatever level that we funded in the operating budget on a short term basis becomes the minimum number, and that number this last year was $680,” Hoffman said.
The House Rules Committee is scheduled to take invited testimony on the school funding bill, Senate Bill 140, at 4 p.m. Wednesday. Johnson said he plans to take public testimony and a committee vote on the bill in the coming days.
Education is one of many issues lawmakers have on their agendas this year. Tilton said her caucus also hopes to advance bills to reduce the cost of energy and bolster public safety. On the Senate side, Stevens said his caucus is eyeing reforms of the state’s retirement system. The session is expected to continue through mid-May.