AKLEG Day 1: House GOP kicks things off by saying no to vote on K-12 funding
Instead, they're offering a much smaller increase tied to a litany of conservative education policy priorities.
Good evening, Alaska! The first day of the 2024 legislative session is in the books.
In this edition: Education funding is at the forefront of pretty much everyone’s mind as the Legislature kicks off the 2024 legislative, but it’s looking like there’s not going to be any quick action on funding after the GOP House Majority shot down the possibility of calling a joint session to override the governor’s veto of K-12 funding. Instead, House Republicans are pushing forward with the tradition of tying a smaller-than-needed K-12 funding increase to a slew of other conservative policy goals.
Current mood: 🙄
House GOP kicks things off by saying no to vote on K-12 funding
The 2024 legislative got underway today in a snowier-than-usual Juneau, and education was at the forefront of pretty much everyone’s session priorities except for the Dunleavy-aligned Republican House Majority, which voted down the fastest path to restore tens of millions of dollars in education funding.
On a 20-20 vote, the House rejected a motion from the bipartisan House Minority to call a joint session with the Senate where they’d have the opportunity to override Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s vetoes. At issue is Dunleavy’s veto of $87 million in K-12 funding from last year’s budget, half of the boost that even the House Republican Majority backed. Under the constitution, the Legislature has five days to consider the override of vetoes at the start of a new legislative session.
However, an override is an exceptionally tall task in Alaska thanks to the Alaska Constitution’s requirement of a three-quarter majority to override any budget vetoes. That high threshold was why even some pro-school legislators balked at the notion of calling a special session to consider the vetoes during the interim, calling it a futile effort (that would also put a load of people on the record).
Still, the call for a permanent increase in education funding hasn’t exactly died down in the interim. The loss of spending power created by years of flat base funding and expiring one-time funding boosts continues to be felt around the state, threatening to shutter schools, eliminate positions and grow class sizes. A rally held in downtown Anchorage this weekend attracted several hundred supporters.
“Education funding has not been meaningfully addressed in a sustainable and predictable way for more than a decade,” said House Minority Leader Calvin Shrage, I-Anchorage, when making the pitch on the House floor. “We’re at a tipping point. School districts across the state are looking at laying off staff. They’re looking at major issues with retaining the staff that they do have. A morale crisis.”
Members of the bipartisan Senate Majority stopped short of calling for a veto override at their start-of-session news conference. Still, they said that education funding is their top priority for the legislative session, with the goal being a permanent increase to the base student allocation, the figure that determines school funding based on several factors. After a tumultuous 2023, members said they were waiting to see what the House Majority would do with the override and other pending education funding.
For their part, the House’s Republican leadership refused to debate Schrage or other members during the floor vote, remaining silent on the issue through the debate and floor speeches. Caucus-less Republican Rep. David Eastman even lent his support to the effort, arguing it’s their duty under the Alaska Constitution to act on vetoes.
Ultimately, all 20 Republicans in the House Majority voted against the override. The three non-Republican Majority members—Reps. Bryce Edgmon, Neal Foster and Rep. CJ McCormick—split from the majority but didn’t speak to the issue.
When the House Majority held its news conference, House Speaker Cathy Tilton started by saying that lowering the cost of energy—a key Dunleavy priority heading into the year—would also be their key priority for the session. Once she finally got to the Majority’s refusal to hold a joint session, she said they were taking a different approach to education.
“Going into a joint session for a veto override is not what our caucus is focused on,” she said. “We’re focused on long-term solutions for education.”
Rep. Craig Johnson, the Anchorage Republican who chairs the House Rules Committee, said that the plan is to rework Senate Bill 140 (a bill initially dealing just with internet accessibility grants for schools that the House lumped in an increase to the BSA at the end of last session) into a far-ranging omnibus education bill that would wrap in several other education bills—some of which have had little traction—and tie it to a much smaller increase to the BSA.
We haven’t seen a version of that bill yet—it’s expected to be introduced at a Wednesday afternoon hearing of the House Rules Committee—but Johnson said it would include things like legislation relating to public charter schools, the governor’s bill to directly pay teachers for sticking it through a school year (with no requirement to continue teaching) and several other unspecified issues (the governor’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill also comes to mind as a distinct possibility).
Johnson made a big show of describing the bill as a workable compromise for everyone, but it’s unlikely that the BSA amount he’s putting forward will fly.
“Three hundred bucks,” he said, finally.
At the last news conference of the day, House Minority Leader Schrage noted that the legislation outlined by Johnson would translate to a cut to the school funding from the budget approved last year, even when factoring in the governor’s vetoes. The $174 million approved by the Legislature equated to a roughly $680 increase to the BSA. Dunleavy’s veto reduced the funding to what would have effectively been a $340 increase.
House Minority Whip Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, said she was baffled by the package.
“Last year, the amendment that increased the BSA to $685 was put forward by the majority. It was voted on three times by the majority and was supported three times by the majority. It confuses me and makes me question what happened. Now, not a one of them,” she said. “I guess they’ve just decided over the year they are not going to support education. ... It’s a little odd.”
One hint may be from House Finance Committee co-chair Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer, who noted that the $174 million infusion last year originated from the House Majority but that the final figure was ultimately a deal with Dunleavy.
“We’ve proven our support for education,” she said of the $174 million. “It was a negotiation with the governor, and the governor said, ‘Not so much.’ We’re listening to that.”
Why it matters
A lot of this is an attempt by the House Republicans to outmaneuver the Senate Majority, which handily outfoxed them during last year’s budget negotiations (though, to be clear, the House Republicans really played themselves with internal divisions and inability to pass a balanced budget).
Rep. Craig Johnson acknowledged the intent is for the bill to land in a conference committee with the Senate to negotiate a final version, which will realistically play out throughout the session without resolution until the final days.
Critically, those negotiations would be limited to the differences between the two bills, at least on the first go-around of the talks. Because the version of SB 140 that the Senate passed dealt just with internet connectivity grants and not charter schools, teacher bonuses, school funding or anything else, that gives the House Republicans wide latitude to dictate the boundaries of those talks and an opportunity to inject other dead-in-the-water education policies.
But sending over a BSA increase of just $300—meaning it’d be the upper limit of those talks—is a non-starter with the House Minority (whose votes may very well be needed to pass the bill if the last session is anything to go by) and is likely a non-starter with the Senate (where $680 was widely seen as the bare minimum).
Things can change between now and when the bill is finally sent back to the Senate—we still have the House Rules Committee and the floor amendment process—but it’s certainly an interesting start to the session.
The House Republicans’s plan of pushing forward with a complicated tightrope of contentious education policy while also not meaningfully addressing the loud call for funding stands will almost assuredly unravel at one of several dozen points this session, especially given the House Republicans’ track record of infighting.
This time, too, it doesn’t look like the House Minority will be willing to bail them out as long as education funding remains unresolved.
“I can’t support much from this body without first addressing education,” Schrage said during a special order following the rejection of the veto override vote.
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