With 22 members more interested in following the direction of Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy than attending a joint session to take up his vetoes, the Alaska Legislature came up eight votes short of overriding the governor’s cuts to the budget on Wednesday.
The 38 legislators who were present in Juneau spent about two hours making an impassioned case to restore funding to everything from early education to higher education as well as homelessness services and benefits to low-income seniors in what was a doomed effort from the start. The final vote was 37-1 in favor of overturning the vetoes and enacting the Legislature’s budget in its entirety.
The Legislature needed 45 votes.
“I just can’t believe we’re headed in this direction,” said Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, who talked about the importance of having a vibrant university system that helps drive the economy and better understand the Arctic. “We have to tell the governor we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.”
Dunleavy delivered some $400 million in vetoes that came on top of more than $200 million cuts made by the Alaska Legislature during this year’s budget process. Much of the effort was done in service of boosting the surplus funds available to inflate the permanent fund dividend, a key campaign promise for the governor, as much as possible.
While Dunleavy has made the cuts under the argument that the state is in the middle of a dire fiscal crisis, many legislators argued with that concept on the floor on Wednesday. They noted that without the dividend, the Legislature would have had a roughly $600 million surplus that would have yielded a roughly $900 cash payout to Alaska residents.
“This budget in front of us today and the vetoes we’re now addressing is not about pursuing a balanced budget. It is about paying for a $3,000 dividend check,” said Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage. “Is forcing our university system to collapse and all the great pioneering research for Arctic, climate, the contracts they have with the Department of Defense, the science and engineering programs that directly translate to jobs in our economy worth a $3,000 dividend? … Is forcing life-long elderly Alaskans out of the Pioneer Home, to move out of Alaska and live in places they’ve never known is that worth a PFD? Is taking hospice care away from families with dying loved ones at the very end of their life and at the very most of their need worth a $3,000 PFD?”
Dunleavy’s vetoes would bring the payout closer to $1,500. Further boosting it would require the Legislature to sign off on nearly $1 billion in spending out of its savings accounts.
Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage, was critical of the administration’s justifications for the cuts. Many of the vetoes essentially returned the budget to the governor’s initial proposal from Feb. 13 that legislators struggled to get justification for throughout the session. She said they are still stonewalling the Legislature about just what the cuts will mean for Alaska and the state’s economy.
“Here’s the scary thing, I don’t think anybody in the administration understands the full implications of all the vetoes and the fund sweeps. When we ask the governor he says, ‘I’ll get back to you,’” she said. “We still cannot get real answers to real questions. … Our future is on the line and we cannot get basic answers.”
The lone vote in favor of the vetoes came from North Pole Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson. Wilson spent the first day of the special session in Wasilla along with 20 of the other holdouts that were there that day.
She said she didn’t support all of the vetoes, but instead argued in favor of a compromise piece of legislation that would restore some funding for the vetoes.
“We can’t override the vetoes without 45 votes and even with my math skills I’m pretty sure we can’t get there,” she said. “That’s where we have the opportunity. It’s an opportunity for compromise. … I want to make sure Alaskans understand the conversation is not over.”
Though such a suggestion has garnered some traction as better than nothing, it creates more uncertainty and the funding could take months to arrive. Such negotiations would likely hinge on the payment of a $3,000 dividend.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, warned against that approach. He said he believed from personal conversations with Dunleavy that these cuts would be happening even if the Legislature handed him his campaign promise.
“These vetoes would stand whether your voted for a $3,000 or not. He has no intention of stopping this approach to governing, so do not be misled by that,” he said. “I believe some of our colleagues who have chosen to be somewhere else today, I believe they think there’s a compromise available here between these budget cuts and a dividend check. Whether we do or don’t give a dividend check will be irrelevant to this governor.”
In the meantime, many organizations and homelessness shelters—including Fairbanks’ The Door, which serves youth—would be forced to close due to the vetoes. University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen held a press conference where he said he was still optimistic but said the university would be moving ahead with plans to declare financial exigency, which would allow the university to dramatically restructure almost overnight, on Monday.
A common thread throughout many of the speeches was condemnation and disgust for the 22 legislators who skipped out on the vetoes, refusing to put themselves on the record to support the governor’s widely unpopular actions.
“It was a bait and switch that has resulted in people not standing up for the people of Alaska,” said Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage. “I think it’s an excuse to fail to make a courageous decision. It’s difficult to stand up to your party, it’s difficult to stand up to your governor but the cost is huge.”
The legislators who refused to participate in the floor session included Reps. Dave Talerico, Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, Mark Neuman, George Rauscher, David Eastman, DeLena Johnson, Cathy Tilton, Sharon Jackson, Kelly Merrick, Sara Rasmussen, Josh Revak, Ladie Shaw, Lance Pruitt, Ben Carpenter, Sarah Vance and Gabrielle LeDoux. Sens. Mia Costello, Lora Reinbold, Shelley Hughes, Mike Shower and Peter Micciche were either absent or excused.
Shortly after the vote, Rep. Colleen Sullivan-Leonard posted a picture of her and 16 other legislators proudly smiling to the camera while standing around a seated, grinning Dunleavy. The post read “Staying 22 strong” but was deleted shortly after posting.
— Matt Acuña Buxton (@mattbuxton) July 10, 2019
The Legislature kept the joint session open with plans to return on Thursday. The Legislature could potentially reconsider its action then. The deadline to override the vetoes is 1 p.m. on Saturday.