- Associated Press - Friday, February 7, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - A proposal to move a constitutional amendment to the ballot that would allow use of public funds for private and religious schools advanced from the House Education Committee on Friday.

HJR 1 advanced on a 4-3 vote. It next goes to the House Judiciary Committee.

Four Republicans voted for passage, and two Republicans joined a Democrat in voting against it.

HJR1, from Wasilla Republican Rep. Wes Keller, would strike a provision in the state constitution prohibiting use of public funds for the direct benefit of private and religious schools.

It also would add, in a section of the constitution that says public money cannot be appropriated except for a public purpose, that nothing in that section shall prevent payment of public funds “for the direct educational benefit of students as provided by law.”

Republican Reps. Paul Seaton of Homer and Peggy Wilson of Wrangell along with Democratic Rep. Harriet Drummond of Anchorage voted against advancing the measure.

Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, voted in favor, though she expressed mixed feelings.

“On one hand, let’s say you live in an affluent area like Gross Pointe and you don’t like the Detroit police department. You don’t go out and get a voucher to start your own police force,” LeDoux told the committee. “On the other hand, a lot of what is in our constitution is due to the Blaine Amendment, which was blatantly anti-Catholic.”

The Blaine Amendment had been a requirement since 1876 for territories seeking statehood prohibiting public funding for religious schools and is widely seen as targeting Catholic schools. Alaska placed such language into its constitution when it submitted its application for statehood in 1958.

It has been pointed to in the debate over whether Alaska should now fund private schools and during public testimony on HJR1 by the House Education Committee.

LeDoux told the committee she was voting to advance it to House Judiciary, where the legal issues could be debated. She is also a member of that panel.

Her vote was the deciding vote for advancement.

Seaton noted the proposal could negatively affect funding for public schools and sets no standards by the state for private schools to follow.

Wilson said her vote was due in part to the fact it had not been properly vetted. She told the committee the “bottom line” is, if the amendment is approved by voters, the state will be financing private schools.

“We need to look at the unattended consequences of this bill,” Wilson said.

A companion proposal, SJR9, from Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, is also pending. It advanced from Senate Finance and could get a floor vote if there is sufficient support.

Proposed constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate to qualify for the ballot.

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