Legislators disappointed but not surprised at governor's education funding veto

Southeast legislators said they were disappointed that Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed half of the one-time increase in state money for K-12 public schools, but will try again next year to address education funding needs.

“We heard from school districts around the state that needed the money,” Ketchikan Rep. Dan Ortiz said June 21. The $175 million increase that legislators appropriated for the 2023-2024 school year was a compromise between House and Senate members, Democrats, Republicans and independents, he explained.

The money, which Dunleavy cut in half in his June 19 vetoes, represented about a 14% boost under the state’s per-student funding formula, which has not changed in more than six years while inflation has risen a total of 24%.

Ortiz introduced legislation this year for a permanent increase in the funding formula, which would have cost about $320 million a year. The Senate proposal was $257 million. The final number of $175 million was pushed by the House Republican-led majority which was reluctant to approve anything more and firmly resistant to a change in the formula, preferring just a one-year increase.

“I’m not going to apologize for standing up for education first,” said Ortiz, a retired high school teacher, who also represents Wrangell.

The representative, now in his ninth year in the House, said he will try again next year for a permanent and larger increase in state aid.

Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman, Wrangell’s other legislator, also is looking toward next year. “We’re better off to play a long game with this issue,” he said Thursday, June 22. Though some legislators have called for a special session to override Dunleavy’s veto, “I don’t see that being accomplished,” Stedman said.

It requires support from 40 of the 60 House and Senate members to call a special session, and then 45 votes to override a budget veto — unachievable numbers, he said.

Besides, a politically contentious override fight would make it harder to reach an acceptable outcome next year, when Stedman and others will try to win legislative approval for a permanent increase in the school funding formula in state law.

The senator, who is in his 20th year in the Legislature, said he was not surprised at the governor’s veto. Dunleavy was reluctant all session to commit to supporting any specific increase in K-12 funding.

The governor announced his budget vetoes in a news release, without a press conference to take questions.

School district administrators from across the state criticized the cut, including Wrangell Schools Superintendent Bill Burr. “There was no real response to why it was cut except vague statements about stable financial status for the state,” he said. “We feel that the Legislature came to a middle ground with bipartisan support which in the end was not a perfect solution, but it was a start.”

Bill Hill, superintendent of the Bristol Bay School District in Southwest Alaska, called the veto “super disappointing.” He added, “I think, overall, the governor is sending a message with his cut … education is going to take a back seat to whatever his priorities are.”

Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican, said the veto to education funding will “have a huge impact” on several school districts that were relying on the funding to sustain key programs and services.

“We know we’ve short-funded education for more than a decade, and it needed to be caught up with inflation,” she said.

House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, said she supported the governor’s school funding veto.

The cut was among several imposed by the governor in his vetoes of the $6 billion spending plan for the state budget year that starts July 1. “Budgets should reflect the values of Alaskans,” he said in a prepared statement, adding that the revised budget “accomplishes that.”

His other vetoes included many of the legislatively funded maintenance projects at the University of Alaska and at K-12 public schools. The cuts to school operations funding and maintenance projects totaled the majority of his vetoes.

Dunleavy reduced legislative funding to public radio stations for the fifth year in a row.

He also vetoed more than $2.5 million for tourism marketing; $3.5 million in additional money for Head Start; $5 million for the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program; and $375,000 for several departments to boost their hiring efforts to fill job vacancies.

Overall, the governor’s budget vetoes would leave the state with a likely surplus of almost $300 million if North Slope oil production meets expectations and prices average $72 per barrel in the new fiscal year. Prices have averaged about $76 in June. The Legislature’s budget plan showed a surplus of just under $100 million.

Though the governor has consistently campaigned for a much larger Permanent Fund dividend, the Legislature approved a PFD this fall of about $1,300. The governor does not have the authority to increase that amount.

The dividend will cost about $880 million, close to the unrestricted general fund spending on the University of Alaska, Department of Corrections, court system and the Legislature combined.

The Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Beacon contributed reporting for this story.


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