Senate approves $1.6B state construction budget

The Alaska Senate has voted 16-4 to send the state’s $1.6 billion capital construction budget to the House.

The $1.6 billion budget is in many ways a bare-bones appropriation and went unchanged from a version previously approved by the Senate Finance Committee.

Of the budget, $1.3 billion will be funded by federal dollars administered by the state. Only $77.5 million will be spent in undesignated general-fund dollars as matching funds needed to unlock that federal money. The remainder of the budget will be funded with various other state accounts.

“It’s tough times; it requires tough decisions, and the Senate has risen to the occasion,” said Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Anchorage.

Most of the budget is allocated for transportation-related construction projects, which are matched at better than a 9-to-1 rate by the federal government.

The biggest point of contention in the budget was the lack of a $7.2 million appropriation for the Kivalina school in the Northwest Arctic Borough.

Gov. Bill Walker had requested $7.2 million to finalize the settlement of a lawsuit alleging unequal treatment between rural and urban school funding.

According to an analysis of the settlement provided by the Alaska Department of Law, the state must provide $50.4 million for a new Kivalina school. Last year, the Legislature appropriated $43.2 million for the school. Walker’s request would have covered the remaining amount, but it was removed by the Senate Finance Committee.

“Our attorneys last year gave us a different number,” MacKinnon, co-chairwoman of the finance committee, said in a floor speech.

In a memo dated May 13, 2016, legislative counsel Megan Wallace wrote MacKinnon to say that the state is obliged to fund only $43.2 million. While the Legislature could choose to provide more money, Wallace concluded, “the Legislature’s decision whether to appropriate those amounts cannot and will not lead to any violation of the consent decree.”

Instead of additional money for the Kivalina school, the capital budget includes a statement declaring that the Legislature believes it has already met the requirements of the settlement.

That language and the removal of the Kivalina money was opposed by members of the four-member Democratic Senate minority and Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome and a member of the Senate majority. Olson represents Kivalina in the Senate.

The budget also includes $12.5 million to purchase an Anchorage office building for use by the Legislature.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak and chairman of the Legislative Council, implied that the purchase is the best of a series of bad options for the Legislature.

It cannot purchase its existing downtown Anchorage building because of a veto threat from the governor. It cannot continue to lease the downtown building because the lease was ruled illegal. Moving into the state-owned Atwood Building would require renovating that structure and finding interim space for lawmakers while the renovations take place.

The Senate Majority offered an amendment to strip the $12.5 million from the budget, but that was rejected 4-16. Members of the Senate Majority said that on a square-foot basis, the $12.5 million purchase will work out to 57 cents a square foot.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, retorted that on a square foot basis, the new building is so large that every Anchorage legislator would be getting 2,000 to 3,000 square feet of office space.

“Do you really need 2-3,000 square feet per legislator?” he asked.

Members of the Senate majority also rejected amendments that would have de-funded the Knik Arm Bridge and Bragaw Road extension projects in Anchorage.

The capital budget moves to the House for consideration.

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