The fate of higher education funds remains uncertain as the Legislature debates a bill that would fund the capital budget.
The Senate on Saturday voted 19-0 in favor of a bill that had been approved Friday by the Senate Finance Committee to fully fund a capital budget and restore some funds that were automatically returned to the Constitutional Budget Reserve at the end of the fiscal year on June 30. The bill now moves on to the House of Representatives, where the outcome is unclear.
“So our goal is to pass the capital budget, which, in the capital budget, the reverse sweeps are included as language in there,” Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Adam Wool said.
A “reverse sweep” tackles a group of subaccounts that are part of an annual sweep of funds that occurs at the end of each fiscal year, moving the funds to the Constitutional Budget Reserve. This year, Gov. Mike Dunleavy included the Higher Education Investment Fund, which holds funding for the Alaska Performance Scholarship, the Alaska Education Grant and the five-state WWAMI medical education program, in the group of subaccounts to be emptied into the budget reserve.
That decision caused the Alaska Commission on Post-secondary Education, which administers the funds, to send inform scholarship recipients earlier this month that the money would not be available. Nearly 1 in 5 degree-seeking high school students receives the Alaska Performance Scholarship, and more than 1 in 10 degree-seeking students receive the needs-based Alaska Education Grant. The two programs together support more than 30% of University of Alaska students.
The budget provision requires a three-quarters vote in each legislative chamber to return — or reverse sweep — the money back into the investment fund. A vote on the provision at the end of a previous legislative session failed, however, due to debate over the amount of this year's Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.
There is still some question as to whether the capital bill will pass in the House, given the prior dispute.
“The reverse sweep takes a three-quarter vote, and I don’t know if we have a three-quarter vote," said Republican Majority Leader Rep. Steve Thompson of Fairbanks. "I mean, that’s the problem, so that’s what we’re working on and we’ll see where it goes."
Thompson said the Legislature is stuck in a “holding pattern” at the moment and that he anticipates a difficult time getting the bill approved.
The House will need seven members of the Republican minority to agree in order for the bill to pass, according to Thompson, who called the bill “one of the most important things we’ve ever done for the state.”
Wool said he also is uncertain whether there will be enough affirmative votes to reach the required number, although he expressed hope that the bill would pass in the House as well, given the Senate passed it unanimously.
He emphasized that the discussion isn’t over yet and that a lot of people have been worried about the funds, including people who may have voted against a reverse sweep a few weeks ago.
University of Alaska students, who will start school next month, will have to wait for the House to vote in order to determine what will happen to scholarship and grant funding.
“I want to be encouraging, so I want to say hang in there and hopefully we’ll resolve it in the next couple of days,” Wool said.
The House was to convene at 2 p.m. on Saturday to read the bill across the floor. The bill is Senate Bill 2002.
Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7510. Follow her on Twitter at: twitter.com/FDNMlocal