As Budget Negotiations Continue, Lawmakers Defend Position On Education Cuts

It is Day 92 of the legislative session, and lawmakers still have not reached a compromise on the state’s budget. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports from a very quiet Capitol.

You know it’s bad when even lawmakers are taking to Twitter to vent about having to “hurry up and wait.” Since the Legislature failed to gavel out on Sunday, no standing committees have met, and only one bill — an act creating Children’s Day — has been put to a vote. A few key negotiators are very busy, but most everyone else is on the sidelines.

Outside of a 20-minute Senate floor session, the only scheduled activity that took place on Tuesday was a Senate Finance committee press conference, led by Fairbanks Republican Pete Kelly.

“The cavalry of funding is not coming over the hill to rescue us,” said Kelly. “We don’t have the money.”

A handful of majority members said their purpose in calling reporters together was to convey how dire the fiscal picture really is, and to explain their position in budget negotiations. They reiterated that the state faces a nearly $4 billion deficit, and their reductions were not severe when put in that context.

Sen. Anna MacKinnon, an Eagle River Republican, expressed dismay over public opposition to their committee’s budget cuts.

“We really need the dialogue to change so people understand what’s going on,” said Sen. MacKinnon. “At least how my e-mails are tracking, people are shouting about adding more money, and they believe the more e-mails that are sent to us shouting and asking or demanding more money, that somehow we’re going to be able to deliver that.”

Over the course of 45 minutes, they defended their position. Most of their energy focused on one $50 million cut, which has triggered an especially large outcry and caused disagreement with the Alaska House of Representatives in negotiations to adjourn the session.

“The loggerhead, as everyone knows in the room, is with education,” said Hoffman.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Bethel Democrat who caucuses with the majority, responded to public criticism the their committee clawed back school funding that was committed last year.

“They may have been a promise, but that promise was made in completely different financial times for the State of Alaska,” said Hoffman.

Hoffman went on to say that even though it was causing the hold up on gaveling out, the cut was small in the grand scheme of things.

“The difference between where we are in the House and Senate is a pittance — a pittance! — in comparison to the problem that this state is facing,” said Hoffman.

But opponents of the education reduction believe that it cuts both ways — that the Legislature is going long because of an appropriation that will neither make nor break the budget. Chris Tuck is the House Minority Leader, and he believes the Senate Majority is trying to paint his caucus as obstructionists.

“Yeah, I mean that’s fair to say,” Tuck told two reporters. “But we’re not holding public education hostage. We’re not holding kids hostage. We’re not holding seniors hostage. We’re not holding the sick hostage.”

House Democrats are in an unusual spot, in that they are involved in budget negotiations at all. Because the budget deficit is so large, lawmakers are looking at tapping the state’s constitutional budget reserve. The Legislature needs a three-quarter vote in each body to tap that rainy day fund, and votes from at least three minority Democrats are needed to get there. This means you have the House Minority, the House Majority, and the Senate Majority all with their demands at the negotiating table. The House Minority has said it wants more education funding and Medicaid expansion as conditions for their support, the Senate Majority wants to maintain the cuts that it put in place, and the House Majority is somewhere in between.

Tuck said that having more parties involved in negotiations complicates the dynamics, and that Republicans are still adjusting to it.

“They’re not used to being in this position, that’s for sure,” said Tuck.

As far as when negotiations should end, that’s unclear. Tuck said the earliest the Legislature will be out is tomorrow night. It’s the same answer he gave yesterday, and could be the same answer he gives tomorrow.