WASILLA—A faction of 21 legislators met at the Wasilla Middle School on Monday in a show of solidarity with the deeply unpopular Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy and his call for a special session in his hometown.
With most legislators in Juneau, the faction didn’t come close to having the necessary number of legislators to conduct any official business, but it didn’t stop them from grandstanding about the legitimacy of the activity in the state’s capital.
“It comes down to the constitution and our responsibility to obey it,” said Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, as 600 miles away legislative leadership stripped of her position as Majority Leader.
House Minority Leader Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, called the activity in Juneau “illegitimate” and a “fake session,” but pledged that there wouldn’t be any “shenanigans” in Wasilla.
What was never addressed during the pantomime of a floor session, complete with name cards and desks in a swelteringly hot gym, or the following press conference was the fact that it’s completely Costello, Pruitt and their fellow holdouts’ power to make the Juneau special session legitimate.
The Legislature has the power to call itself into its own special session as long as it can muster 40 votes. It’d allow the Legislature to also add additional items to the agenda, like the capital budget that Pruitt and Costello asked the governor to add to the agenda in order to make good on its funding (the bill is largely unfunded because Pruitt and the House Minority refused a vote because the bill didn’t contain a $3,000 PFD) and retain nearly $1 billion in federal funding.
Dunleavy agreed to add it, but only once the Legislature meets in Wasilla.
What happens next is unclear.
The most pressing issue is the five-day window for the Alaska Legislature to override the governor’s vetoes. It requires legislators muster 45 votes, an impossible task without at least some of the holdouts from Wasilla returning to Juneau. Recent polling showed the governor’s approval rating fell 10 points after he announced his vetoes and public backlash has been strong. Protestors supporting Dunleavy were roughly matched by protestors asking the Legislature override the vetoes outside the Wasilla Middle School. A far larger protest took place outside the capitol building in Juneau that easily dwarfed the combined crowd in Wasilla.
Legislators in Juneau scheduled a joint floor session on Wednesday to take up the vetoes that hit everything from eliminating benefits to low-income seniors to the Alaska State Council on the Arts. Costello said some of the legislators in Wasilla may return to Juneau but said she and others would remain in Wasilla.
When asked if the refusal to return to Juneau meant the legislators wanted to let the vetoes stand, Costello suggested it was those in Juneau that wanted the vetoes to stand.
“I think the point is that we’re trying to work together,” she said. “You can actually argue that those in Juneau want to let those vetoes stand because they’d be here where we can actually take action. This is the place of business for the session.”
Last week, Pruitt said the Legislature shouldn’t even take up the veto overrides because he didn’t think it would be fair to put legislators on the record ahead of the elections. He said an alternative approach where some funding is restored in a separate bill, which could also be vetoed and would potentially see a months-long gap in funding, would be a better alternative.
Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Anchorage, said former North Pole Rep. Al Vezey and Fairbanks attorney Bill Satterberg would be suing over the location. (The group’s champion, Vezey, once called tribal sovereignty an “absolute evil.”)
Costello and Pruitt said most of the legislators plan to remain in Wasilla and hope that the legislators in Juneau change their mind. They didn’t commit to holding any sort of meetings in Wasilla, like the town halls other legislators have been holding in the week since Dunleavy released his vetoes. Costello, who’s not attended any of those meetings, said she’s been talking with constituents through other means.
“I have had great conversations with people here today. All sorts of places. I appreciate the civility and I’m answering hundreds of emails a day and so I think it’s a possibility,” she said. “Coming up here during the morning and then talking with people in the afternoon. I talk with people from morning to night … I’m making myself available as much as possible.”
Who was there
All 15 House minority Republicans were joined by Reps. Tammie Wilson and Gabrielle LeDoux as well as Sens. Mia Costello, Shelley Hughes, Mike Shower and Lora Reinbold. Wilson, the lone representative from the House Majority to attend the day, told reporters that she planned to return to Juneau on Tuesday.
While she was gone on Monday, the House Finance Committee that Wilson co-chairs introduced legislation that would pay out a $1,600 PFD instead of the $3,000 PFD demanded by the governor.