Updated budget requests would fund earthquake relief, cut school funds

Alaska State Capitol, Feb. 7, 2017. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Earthquake relief would gain funding and public education would lose funding in updated budget requests Gov. Mike Dunleavy submitted to the Legislature Monday.

One supplemental budget request includes $37 million in state spending for the earthquake response. Another $102 million will come from the federal government.

A second request would actually save the state money — nearly $9 million. But that includes cutting $20 million for public schools that lawmakers agreed to as part of the budget deal last spring. That troubled Anchorage Democratic Rep. Harriet Drummond.

Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, speaks at a House Majority Press Availability on March 7, 2017. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

“I’m very disappointed, in that this is a governor who has been an educator, a principal, a superintendent of schools in rural Alaska,” she said. “And for him to cut major funding for education is a real disappointment to me.”

Administration officials noted the school cut doesn’t affect the funding required by the formula in state law. And the money hadn’t been sent out to school districts.

Anchorage Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt said the requests make sense. He credits the administration with following through on earthquake recovery. And Pruitt said the state must live within its means, including the school spending cut.

“Well, I think that if people are surprised with this $20 million, then they’re going to have a heart attack on Feb. 13,” Pruitt said.

That’s the day Dunleavy will unveil an updated budget for the fiscal year that begins in July. The budget will have to close a projected gap of $1.6 billion between what the state spends and what it brings in.

Monday’s requests are for the fiscal year that ends in June. They include shifting $13 million from the Alaska Marine Highway System to funds that cover state capital spending and computers. Administration officials said most of it will go toward maintenance that’s been deferred.

Pruitt said the changes make sense, considering the administration knows how much the ferry system is spending. But Juneau Democratic Sen. Jesse Kiehl said lawmakers should scrutinize the request.

“Ferries burn fuel. And when fuel prices fluctuate, you need a fund,” Kiehl said, later adding, “That’s why last year the Legislature worked very hard to make sure that that fund was healthy. And so to come in and pull money back out of that fund really puts the economy at risk.”

Both supplemental requests — Senate Bill 38 for disaster response and Senate Bill 39 for other requests — were referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at akitchenman@alaskapublic.org.

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