Hello again from Juneau. We're down to crunch time now, with the major focus being on the budgets, education funding, and oil taxes. The House is now primarily hearing Senate bills. The Senate is doing the same, by hearing House bills during the last week and a half of the session. There will be hundreds of bills that will die at the end of this session. Less than ten bills have passed both houses.
The Senate passed their version of the Operating Budget, changing the House version in hundreds of ways. Among other things, I was pleased to note that the Senate added more money for early education; including $400,000 for Best Beginnings and $250,000 for Parents as Teachers. I was also happy to see an additional 50 million dollars for the Marine Highway Vessel Replacement fund. We should add 50 million dollars every year for replacement ferries, which would equate to about one new ferry every 3 years.
The House voted not to concur with the Senate's version of the budget, since the proposed differences were so great. A conference committee has been formed, with three members being appointed from each body, to work out the differences. The conference committee will be meeting over the next week until consensus is reached on the Operating Budget between the bodies. This budget is the only constitutionally mandated action that legislators must complete before adjournment. The good news is that both the House and the Senate came up with budgets that kept the continually rising increase in state spending lower than what the governor proposed. The Senate will probably introduce their version of the Capital Budget very soon. It will then be debated in the Senate Finance Committee before being sent to the Senate Floor for a full vote. The House will then get a chance to review it, make changes and send it back to the Senate for concurrence. We hope that all of this activity will happen before midnight April 15th, the last day of session. It usually does but it is a flurry of activity the last week. The Senate was continuing to work on the oil tax bill, SB192, last week. It was hoped that it would be passed over to the House with time for four weeks of House debate in the committee process. The senate still has the bill in Senate Finance. This is such an important issue for our state that the House will take however long it takes to ensure the oil tax bill is something we are proud of and something we can live with for years to come. That being said, it's looking a lot like there won't be any changes to our oil tax structure before the end of session. What a shame. We can only hope that while the amount of oil being shipped from Alaska continues to dwindle that the price of oil remains high. This also could mean a special session for this purpose only.
Another strong focus, before adjournment, is education. The House Finance Committee is continuing to hear bills that work toward making real changes in our public school system. The House recognizes that we have significant problems with education, but we continue to be divided on the solutions. Here in Southeast we continue to be blessed with some top performing school systems that rank high in test scores; but that is just not the case in some other areas of the state. Alaska is ranked dead last when measured against the other 50 states.
We need an education system that is consistent and fair for all Alaskans. I will not give up on my fight to improve our education system. I have always tried to make sure that schools have enough funding to meet their needs. The current foundation formula includes several items that school districts have no control over, and the rising costs of these items, like energy costs and health benefits and transportation, take money that is needed in the classroom. Some legislators want to see an improvement in performance before they increase funding for the Base Student Allocation (BSA). My stand is that they need to increase the BSA this year and next, while continuing a dialogue to improve the foundation formula and changes to education.