Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, speaks to members of the Senate majority caucus’ leadership group on Friday. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, speaks to members of the Senate majority caucus’ leadership group on Friday. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Schools, university and projects across Alaska are set to receive money from new budget bill

Alaska Senate sends draft capital budget to House as work continues on a state spending plan

When it rains hard enough in the Prince of Wales Island town of Craig, staff at the city’s middle school roll out the trash cans.

“The roof is failing,” said Superintendent Chris Reitan. “Every time we have a really hard rain, we have 50-gallon trash cans, and they’re catching water.”

Help may be on the way for Craig’s schools and others across the state. On Friday, the Alaska Senate voted 15-3 to approve the first draft of the state’s $3.9 billion capital budget, which funds construction and renovation projects across the state.

Some legislators have raised alarm about the size of the combined capital and operating budget bills, which — when combined with other legislation — exceed the state’s expected revenue. But because House and Senate negotiators previously agreed on the size of the capital budget, they’re expected to cut first from the operating budget in order to make ends meet.

Within the capital budget is $36 million for major maintenance projects at K-12 schools across Alaska, and Craig is the No. 1 priority on the list of projects.

Altogether, the state House and Senate are planning to spend $550 million in state dollars on capital projects. When federal funding is included, the capital budget nears $4 billion.

Those figures include money in the fiscal year beginning July 1 and additions to the current fiscal year, and is significantly more than the average spent on capital projects over the past 10 years.

In Craig, Reitan said he was “super surprised” that the Senate was willing to fund the top 15 items on the K-12 major maintenance list.

“This is only the Senate, you know, so it’ll have to be worked out with the House and then the governor, but going down 15 projects is a substantial statement by the Senate in regards to the importance of funding for school districts,” he said.

Craig is slated to receive almost $4 million, enough to repair the leaking roof and make the city’s schools more accessible to disabled staff, students and visitors.

In other parts of Alaska, the budget would fulfill long-sought goals. There’s $15 million for a nursing facility in Anchorage, $26.4 million for the renovation of various University of Alaska buildings statewide, $14.5 million to build housing in rural Alaska for nurses, teachers and police — even $750,000 for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which has been experiencing funding problems.

“We have a very well-rounded capital budget, working off of many lists, spread throughout the state,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka and co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer and co-chair of the House Finance Committee, said this year’s capital budget also marks a return to regular legislative order.

Last year, the capital budget and operating budget were combined into a single document that legislators dubbed the “turducken,” a term for a single dish that includes a turkey, duck and chicken.

Unusually, members of the House voted to approve the Senate-written turducken without further negotiations. This year, the House is poised to have greater input on the capital budget.

Earlier this month, negotiators from the House and Senate agreed on the amount to spend: $250 million in projects submitted to the Legislature by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, approximately $200 million in projects added by senators, and another $100 million in House-chosen projects.

The budget passed Friday by the Senate includes projects from the governor and Senate; when the bill goes to the House, lawmakers there will get to add their items.

“I’m kind of excited that we’re actually going to see a capital budget this year,” Johnson said.

While lawmakers were working from a first draft submitted by Dunleavy to the Legislature, not all of the governor’s requests were accepted by the Senate.

Senators axed $6.2 million for an airplane requested by the Department of Public Safety, $7.5 million for a new Permanent Fund dividend application system and $4.65 million for security upgrades at state prisons, among other items.

Those eliminations are significant, because the constitution allows the governor to veto specific line items, but not add them back in, once the Legislature finishes with the budget.

Inclusion in the final version of the budget isn’t a guarantee that a project will be funded, but exclusion is a guarantee that it won’t be.

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