The 2020 legislative session felt different from those in recent years. K-12 public education wasn’t facing major budget cuts, and there was little to no legislation introduced that was adversarial to the interests of students, educators, or public sector unions. Instead, this session was dominated by continued discussion around our fiscal crisis and ultimately, a scramble to pass state budgets as the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic rippled across Alaska.
The Fiscal Crisis
When the legislature convened in January, the state was in a precarious fiscal situation. Oil was trading at about $65 a barrel, but between oil revenues and a Percentage of Market Value Draw (POMV) of 5.25% from the Alaska Permanent Fund, the legislature could have balanced the budget and paid a $600- $800 PFD to every Alaskan. Alaska’s Constitutional Budget Reserve held about $2 billion – just enough of a rainy day fund to help with cash flow for state expenses and to keep Alaska afloat if oil prices were to plummet.
As of publication of this NEA-AKtivist, Alaska North Slope Crude is trading below $20 a barrel. The global commodity that has paid almost 90% of Alaska’s bills for decades has plummeted over 75% in the past few weeks. In just three months the State of Alaska has gone from being able to afford a modest dividend to facing a deficit in next year’s budget, even if there were no dividend paid out at all. This year’s budget, that included a $1,000 dividend, depleted about $1.5 billion of the $2 billion remaining in the Constitutional Budget Reserve, a critical savings account.
Since the peak in 2013, state spending has been cut by over 40%. Many of you have seen the impacts of these reductions first hand, through increased class sizes and student opportunities reduced or eliminated. Next session, legislators are going to have to grapple with how to fund essential services in the face of an unprecedented drop in revenue. Electing pro-public education candidates this fall has never been more important to protecting our students and fulfilling our promise to deliver a high quality public education to every student.
Expedited Budget Process
Before the full scope of the COVID-19 crisis became apparent, the legislature was on pace to finish their work on next year’s budget within the statutory 90 day legislative session. However, as the consequences of the pandemic became more apparent, both the House and the Senate worked in an expedited fashion to finalize their work on the budget and a number of key pieces of legislation related to COVID-19 response.
The budget passed by the legislature was not perfect, but generally was a win for public education in that it held K-12 public education harmless and made some modest investments in early learning, statewide libraries, rural teacher housing and school construction. Unfortunately, the Governor continued his pattern of using vetoes to attack public education and other critical state services.
Governor Dunleavy Vetoes $210 Million from Operating and Supplemental Budgets
Dunleavy claims that federal dollars from the CARES Act can be used to cover many of the vetoes, including his $30 million veto of K-12 education funding and $100 million veto of school bond debt reimbursement for communities. But many legislators and policy experts immediately questioned whether that would be legal under the guidelines included in the federal stimulus bill.
In all likelihood, the legislature will need to reconvene in order to sort out this mess and ensure that federal funding actually finds its ways to our schools, small businesses, and communities.
Line-Item Vetoes Include:
- $30 million in 1-time funding for K-12 public education.
- $4.3 million in Pre-K grants.
- $100.1 million cut to the School Bond Debt Reimbursement program.
- $36.6 million veto to funding for rural school construction and maintenance.
- $2.75 million vetoed from funds for rural teacher, public safety, and health care housing.
- $12.5 million cut to the University of Alaska, contributing to a total $25 million cut to our University system.
- $30 million cut to the Community Assistance Program fund.
- $5 million cut to the one-time AHFC Homeless Grants.
- $2 million cut to Public Radio and a $633.3 thousand cut to Public Television.
- $15.4 million cut to the Alaska Marine Highway System
- $636k cut to the unified state library system
Again, the Governor stated that he would try to backfill these vetoes with federal funds, but it is quite clear that federal disaster relief funds are not to be used to replace standard state appropriations not related to COVID-19. The Attorney General has a different interpretation and at this point there is only uncertainty about what will happen if the Governor is not able to use relief funds for education funding, school bond debt reimbursement and more.
Florida Virtual School
Educators and school districts were blindsided by the announcement by the Department of Education and Early Development of a sole-source contract of $525,000 with Florida Virtual School. School superintendents had been meeting with DEED Commissioner Michael Johnson on a daily basis and were given no advanced notice that the state would be signing off on a major contract to allow students to access content and coursework based out of the Florida Department of Education. There are many questions regarding this and your NEA-Alaska team is actively working with House and Senate Education Committees to learn more and get answers from DEED regarding this disappointing and ill-informed decision to invest limited Alaska resources in a Florida virtual school that has been plaguing with questions of mismanagement and scandal.
Alaska Reads Act
Alaska’s investments in early learning opportunities and voluntary pre-k is woefully inadequate. Educators know that investing in high quality pre-k is good for students and will lead to more students entering school prepared to learn. In addition, as the experts on helping students learn to read, we are excited to engage in a policy conversation about how to help more students read and improve reading proficiency.
The Alaska Read’s Act was a significant piece of legislation that included both a major expansion of early learning opportunities and also established a statewide reading policy. NEA-Alaska President Tim Parker convened the NEA-Alaska Reading Action Team to carefully analyze the reading policies and lead the educator input and feedback. NEA-Alaska was able to offer important improvements to the reading policy component. We continue to be committed to improving access to pre-k and NEA-Alaska members remain the experts on the front line of supporting students learning to read. We expect this policy debate will continue over the interim and into future legislatures. Unfortunately, the state’s fiscal position is likely to make an expansion of pre-k even more difficult. A stable fiscal position for the State of Alaska remains the key to creating more opportunities for Alaska’s kids.
NEA-Alaska was proud to bring over 25 member advocates to Juneau during the legislative session. Collectively, our member advocates, staff, and NEA-Alaska leadership met with every single legislator this session. Our members continue to be the strongest voice in the capitol for advancing the causes of our union and we have forged strong relationships with legislators on both sides of the aisle. If you are interested in participating in our legislative advocacy program please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We will continue to track all pending legislation, political races, and opportunities to engage. Thank you for your advocacy, involvement, and continued support of public education in Alaska.