By Rep. David Guttenberg (D-Fairbanks)
On February 7th the Alaska House of Representatives passed a historic piece of legislation to protect Alaska’s public education system from the seemingly endless political dysfunction that has plagued the Alaska Legislature. House Bill 287 would fund K-12 education early in the session with just over a billion dollars from state savings. The members of the Alaska House Majority Coalition made this bill a priority because we are tired of watching cynical politicians use hard-working teachers as bargaining chips in a political game that imposes uncertainty and inefficiencies on Alaska’s municipalities, school districts, teachers, parents, and students. Unfortunately, those cynical politicians are still out there, and they don’t seem to like this common-sense approach to problem-solving.
I read with interest the recent commentary from former State Senator Gary Wilken published on February 13th in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner criticizing passage of House Bill 287. Wilken noted that the provision to fund the majority of K-12 public education with money from the state’s main savings account, the Constitutional Budget Reserve (CBR), failed to garner the three-quarters vote needed to access CBR. The main bill passed with only three no votes, which was a significant show of support that Senator Wilken neglected to mention. However, Senator Wilken did point out that the House Republican Caucus didn’t agree to the CBR provision. Frankly, this should not have surprised anyone, including Senator Wilken, because it is not uncommon for a House Minority to withhold votes for a CBR draw until a bill comes back from the Senate for concurrence.
This brings us to the flawed and tired arguments put forward by Senate President Pete Kelly, Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche, and former Senator Wilken. Perhaps I was naïve, but I thought they would see this bill for what it was, an honest and responsible attempt to prevent the serious problem of forcing school districts to repeatedly fire teachers because of delays in passing a state operating budget. Foolish me, I should have known that they would use this bill to play politics and try and divide Alaskans along political lines.
The entire House of Representatives, except for three far right-wing members, supported HB 287. They did so with the hope that the Senate Majority would do the right thing by our public education system and fund it sooner rather than later. Senators Kelly and Micciche and former Senator Wilken know full well the Senate can add a funding source to the bill at any time and send it back to the House for concurrence. Once they look at the bill, I hope they will agree with the Alaska House Majority Coalition that the best source of funding is the CBR. If they don’t agree, then my challenge to them is to choose their preferred source of money, add it to the bill and send it back. I am confident that once they do that, it will pass overwhelmingly, and we can avoid unnecessary teacher and school district layoff notices due to delays in passing the state operating budget.
House Bill 287 represents an objectively better way to budget for education in Alaska by eliminating the guesswork and contingency planning that municipalities and school districts are mandated to engage in while they wait for politicians in Juneau to get their work done. School districts and municipalities have had to prepare for funding delays from the State in each of the last three years. In 2015, the state operating budget, which includes funding for education, was passed just a couple of weeks before a possible state government shutdown. In 2016, the budget was passed a couple of weeks after layoff notices went out to nearly every teacher in the state. And last year it took until June 22, days short of a government shutdown, for lawmakers to agree to a budget compromise.
In Juneau, we hear a lot of talk from lawmakers about the importance of education, but talk is cheap. This year, in the House we walked our talk down the hall to the Senate in the form of HB 287. My challenge to the Senate: identify where the money to fund education should come from, add it to the bill, and then walk your talk back down the hall to the House. Once you do that, we can end the pink-slip drama and move another step closer to giving our children great schools staffed by skilled teachers.