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Bipartisan Alaska education package in limbo with veto deadline fast approaching

Mar. 12—JUNEAU — Alaska state legislators are running out of time to approve a new education deal before Thursday's veto deadline of a bipartisan education package that overwhelmingly passed the Legislature last month.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy threatened to veto Senate Bill 140, which included the largest nominal school funding increase in state history. He said at a Feb. 27 news conference that to get his approval, the package would need to include some of his top education priorities, such as provisions to expand access to charter schools and teacher bonuses.

Under state law, the governor has until midnight Thursday to either sign or veto the bill or it will pass into law without his signature.

Since Dunleavy issued his veto ultimatum, members of the governor's office and legislators have discussed behind closed doors what a new education deal could look like. But no new education bills have passed either legislative chamber or advanced from any legislative committee.

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, on Monday said that a new set of draft policy proposals presented to the governor included a shortened appeal time for charter school applications if one is denied. There would also be tweaks for extra funding that was included in the bipartisan education package for students who are struggling to read.

"I'm hoping the governor will say, 'Good enough, you guys have made some changes, and I'm not going to veto this,'" Stevens said about SB 140.

Dunleavy last year proposed that teacher bonuses would be trialed over a three-year period at a cost of over $55 million per year. Larger bonuses would be paid to teachers in rural Alaska.

Members of the bipartisan Senate majority, in particular, have been opposed to Dunleavy's teacher bonuses due to their costs. They have also had doubts how effective bonuses would be in improving the state's recruitment of teachers long-term.

The governor also proposed for a statewide board he appoints to have the authority to authorize new charter schools, potentially over the objections of school districts. There has been opposition in the Legislature to that change over concerns that it would negatively impact the power of local school boards.

Neither Dunleavy's teacher bonus proposal nor his charter school proposal has gotten majority support of the Legislature. Neither were part of a new draft deal presented to the governor.

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski met with Dunleavy late Monday afternoon to present lawmakers' draft proposals. He said he thought the governor liked those ideas, but that most of his discussion with the governor was on charter schools with no clear resolution.

Wielechowski said with legislators set to spend time Tuesday on the House floor considering Dunleavy's 12 executive orders, that there would likely not be enough time to approve a new education deal.

"I think time-wise, we're probably highly unlikely to pass one by Thursday," he said.

Instead, Wielechowski said there may need to be a good faith agreement with the governor by Thursday that legislative leaders will continue working on education policies. Or a veto would likely be the result, he said.

The governor's office said Dunleavy was in Washington D.C. last week for a long-planned trip, which included him attending Thursday's State of the Union as a guest of U.S. Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas. The governor's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the purpose of Dunleavy's D.C. trip, or who he met while there.

House Speaker Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, on Monday said lawmakers were considering education policies supported by the governor to avoid a veto override vote. But she said that there had not been a lot of discussions over a new education package when Dunleavy was in D.C.

Tilton said she had met briefly with Dunleavy on Monday afternoon after he had returned to Juneau, but that there was "nothing to report" from the meeting.

The Alaska Constitution states that the Legislature "shall meet immediately in joint session" to consider a veto override if the governor vetoes a bill during the regular session. If Dunleavy vetoes Senate Bill 140, two-thirds of legislators would need to vote to override that veto in a joint session for the measure to become law.

Stevens said he had heard several legislators would be absent from Juneau on Friday, meaning a potential joint override session may need to take place Monday at the earliest.

Fifty-six of 60 legislators last month voted in support of the bipartisan education package, but it remains unclear if 40 of 60 legislators would vote to override a potential veto of SB 140.

The bipartisan package included a $680 boost to the $5,960 Base Student Allocation — the state's per-student formula — at a cost of $175 million per year. The BSA is used by the state's 53 school districts to write their budgets, often months before the Legislature approves its budget for the next fiscal year.

During his hourlong press conference in late February, Dunleavy signaled that because of the state's strained finances, he would be prepared to veto education funding from the budget, which has caused concern for multiple legislators.

On Monday, Stevens said that lack of funding certainty remained a "key sticking point" to a new education deal advancing. The lack of certainty around SB 140 in general has seen supporters and opponents spring into action.

Education was a key issue at an Anchorage town hall on Saturday that drew nearly all lawmakers representing the Anchorage area, and hundreds of members of the public. Dozens of educators rallied at the entrance to the town hall meeting before it took place, calling for lawmakers to continue supporting the increase to education funding amid the governor's ultimatum.

Out of around 50 speakers at the two-hour town hall, several specifically asked lawmakers to override Dunleavy's veto if he follows through on his promise to veto the bill without additional education provisions.

"If the governor votes to veto this bill, it's going to be an embarrassment for our state, and if you do not vote to override this veto if he does veto, that's going to be a tragedy for our children, our families, our economy, and frankly, our future," said Polly Carr, a volunteer with Great Alaska Schools.

Meanwhile, the conservative-libertarian group Americans for Prosperity-Alaska on Monday issued a statement urging Dunleavy to veto Senate Bill 140. The group said the bill "aimlessly funnels additional money to Alaska's education system without essential reforms."

"To improve Alaska's dismal education outcomes, funding should be used to directly support students instead of simply increasing generalized school district funding. This should be about our children, not buildings and bureaucracies," the statement said in part.

Executive director Bethany Marcum said in an interview that the group appreciated the extra $14.5 million in funding included in the Legislature's education package for home-schooled students, but she said there should have been more home-school funding included — among other changes.

Marcum, a former staff member to Dunleavy when he was in the state Senate, said she had no special insight into what the governor's plans are for SB 140.

"Nobody that I've heard of has heard what the governor is planning to do," she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Polly Crr was executive director of the Alaska Center. She's a former executive director.

Sean Maguire reported from Juneau and Iris Samuels reported from Anchorage.