Day 71: Mines over matter
Amendments in the House Finance Committee seemed to frequently pit resource development against education. Resource development won more often than not, but education still notched a significant win.
Good afternoon, Alaska. It’s Day 71.
In this edition: The House Finance Committee is chugging away on many dozens of amendments that seem to frequently pit resource development against education, child care and a slew of other social programs. While the industry has won more often than not, early education notched a significant win in the committee. A look at some of the other amendments, the daily agenda and that new 2% income tax in the House.
Current mood: 🖤
Podcast links: While running yesterday’s memo back through Word, it removed links to the Hello Alaska! podcast I was talking about. You can find the podcast here, as well as on most podcast platforms and the specific episode I mentioned here.
Mines over matter
“If we’re not going to teach resource development and how important it is—all the items that are in your iPhones and et cetera, et cetera—I’m not sure what’s really important,” Rep. Mike Cronk on a proposed $1 million grant to Alaska Resource Education.
The House Finance Committee got to work on the 80+ amendments proposed to the state’s operating budget on Monday. A bulk of the amendments are coming from the committee’s two Democrats and two independents of the minority coalition, focusing on issues like education, health care, child care and education, for good measure. By and large, the amendments have been defeated along caucus lines with members of the Republican-led Majority extolling the importance of the issues but lamenting that, gosh, the budget is just so tight that they really can’t afford any of it.
That included axing a proposed $320,000 increase to expand the reach of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which provides children of all ages age-appropriate reading materials as well as instructional material on helping parents foster a passion for reading, from the budget. A particularly smarmy Rep. Mike Cronk, R-Tok, said that it sounded like a program better supported by individuals rather than the state and told supporters of the program that he’d think about making a personal donation before voting to remove the funding.
Where the Majority legislators had far less hangups on spending money, though, was on pretty much any spending related to mines and oil and gas development. The one place where the Republican-led Majority was in favor of adding money into education was in approving Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s last-minute request to send $1 million to Alaska Resource Education, a nonprofit primarily funded by the resource industry to deliver pro-industry courses in the classroom.
Rep. Andy Josephson moved to strike the money, arguing that the state shouldn’t be putting its money into what is essentially pro-industry education in the classroom, doubting that it would provide students with a fair and even-handed look at the reality of resource development and its impacts on the environment.
“It’s promotional,” he said. “That’s what it is. It’s promotional and I don’t think that’s a balanced perspective for our children.”
It drew an impassioned defense from several Republicans on the committee, who argued if not for the resource industry there wouldn’t be any money for anything.
“As a former teacher, I do believe it’s very important that our kids know where our money comes from,” Rep. Cronk said. “There are so many—so many—things taught in schools that I don’t agree with but if we’re going to play that what are going to do? If we’re not going to teach resource development and how important it is—all the items that are in your iPhones and et cetera, et cetera—I’m not sure what’s really important.”
Josephson’s amendment was defeated as were a handful of other amendments to move money away from oil and gas to other uses.
The fight for education and child care did notch one win, though, and it’s a significant one at that. Majority Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, made an amendment that would divert about $5 million away from the state’s effort to take over permitting of projects that impact wetlands from the federal government and into the state’s Head Start program, an early education program.
Again, many of the Republicans argued against the amendment. The long sought-after change, known as 404 primacy, could be a massive boon to the resource extraction industry, they argued, and if the resource extraction industry is doing well then maybe they could consider funding this program in the future.
Edgmon argued that nothing is so certain about the program, which is expected to cost nearly $5 million annually and that’s not including the cost of the litigation. Head Start, he said, has a proven track record that is a worthwhile investment.
“We don’t know what it’s going to cost us in the future,” Edgmon said. “The Head Start program in contrast is a program that has been in Alaska for many years. There are 17 grantees around the state. It’s a program that by and large in terms of the early learning opportunities in our state has provided the bulk of that opportunity.”
The amendment moving the money to the Head Start program passed 6-5 with Majority Reps. Edgmon and Neal Foster being joined by the committee’s four minority members to override the committee’s Republicans.
But the cross-caucus unity was more of an exception rather than the rule.
An amendment later in the day that would have put as much as $15 million into child care grants as some $90 million in federal child care grants are expiring failed to get the votes to pass. Child care was a big deal during the public testimony, and several legislators from the Minority Coalition argued that such an investment was smart for kids, families, working parents and the overall health of the economy.
Again, several in the Majority fell back to the arguments that, gosh, the need is there but only if the state’s resource industry was doing a little better.
“We can believe we need to do something about child care or we can act to support child care,” said Rep. Dan Ortiz.
The committee did not, in fact, act.
Budget amendments are continuing today and the budget will likely have a date with the House floor the following week.
Other notable votes
The Minority Coalition members proposed an amendment cutting the dividend from the 50-50 level to the 75-25 level, but it was rejected along caucus lines. Many Republicans argued that reducing the dividend would just result in government growing more and result in taxes. Though Rep. Edgmon voted in favor of keeping the 50-50 dividend, he acknowledged that it’s not actually sustainable and needs significant work soon.
The Minority Coalition’s proposal to cut the amount of oil tax credits the state would purchase back in half—cutting it from $42 million to $21 million—was cut in half at the Republican legislators’ request. So instead of paying out $42 million, the state will pay out $28 million instead.
They added in $1 million for rural public radio with the direction to disburse the money to stations that are the primary broadcaster of the emergency alert system.
Republicans are keen on looking for other pots of money to tap, and the Higher Education Investment Fund (a much-fought over endowment that funds scholarships) seems to be a favored target. But with the draws on the fund coming above what some see as a sustainable level, attempts to further draw out of the fund were ultimately nixed.
They restored funding for library grants, which was a common thread in public testimony where several community library groups warned that if the funding (which trickles down to just a few thousand dollars for some groups) vanished then they might have to close shop, too.
The Alaska Memo by Matt Buxton is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.