Dunleavy’s proposed education cuts don’t get a chance after minority Republicans walk out of committee

Rep. Ben Carpenter walks out of the House Education subcommittee during its March 18, 2019 meeting. Gavel Alaska cameras weren't present at the meeting so the only visual evidence of the meeting was captured by the Legislature-run Alaska Legislative TV cameras that are hard-wired into each committee room.

House Republicans walked out of today’s meeting of the House budget subcommittee on education, protesting a process that would have required them to publicly support each of the governor’s cuts if they wanted to see them included in the budget.

It left three dozen cuts Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy proposed for the Department of Education without any support—and out of the House budget.

After weeks of informational hearings, the House budget subcommittee on education met this morning to decide piece-by-piece what the parts of the Dunleavy budget would be included in the committee’s recommendations. Those recommendations will be forwarded to the full House Finance Committee where they’ll be rolled into the House version of the operating budget.

In the past, the decision on what pieces of a governor’s proposed budget would be included would rest with the subcommittee chair. Budget change documents were traditionally prepared away from public input and typically released as the committee convened. Subcommittee members could then propose amendments on top of those changes.

It appeared to be a thoroughly confusing change of process for some of the members, requiring an explanation from legislative finance aide Brodie Anderson before the votes got underway.

“You will be acting on those budget action items and then deciding and talking and voting on whether or not those should be included as part of your closeout narrative,” he said. “The last time we did it this way was back in FY17 (the 2016 session). We returned back to that model of acting on governor’s budget action items in a subcommittee process and then allowing subcommittee members to amend those items as well, whether to increase or decrease from what the governor had requested. This was a return to the way we had done it in the past.”

Anderson said the biggest change in the process was that all items in the governor’s proposal would be put up for a vote instead of allowing a committee chair to pick and choose what’s included.

“The only difference is before in the past the governor’s action items were just rolled in without an open debate of whether or not each one of those action items should be included,” he explained. “This year we decided that the most open and transparent way would be to have a conversation about each one of the individual budget action items for all the members to be included rather than have it pre-selected by a chair or something like that. This is a return to a standard practice we had done in the past.”

But that explanation wasn’t heard by minority Republican Reps. DeLena Johnson, Ben Carpenter and Josh Revak, who had all already walked out in protest of the process.

Revak and Carpenter left during an off-record discussion with subcommittee chair Rep. Dan Ortiz, while Johnson put her protest on the record.

“Given the change to the way that we’re doing business here today, I feel this is a heavy-handed action by the majority. I think the minority vote and voice is not being heard. I think my constituents and the people that elected me deserve better,” she said. “And as such I will not be participating today.”

Johnson’s comments were made after a lengthy discussion with Ortiz about the upcoming votes, where she argued that the process had been rigged and she had not been given adequate time to review the proposed votes.

“As far as I can tell it’s already been predetermined what the votes would be. It’s not amendments, and it’s non-debatable. I’m having a hard time being part of this process,” she said.

“I will say that we discussed these items and you had knowledge of these items for at least three weeks,” Ortiz said. “To say that you were not aware of them, I don’t think that works.”

She also complained about the timing that the documents were provided to the committee: About 3 p.m. on Friday. Again, in the past typically these documents were released at the start of the meeting.

“I didn’t have any business days to work on this,” she said.

Her lack of understanding of the amendments was reiterated in a statement she released about an hour after the meeting, where she said the amendments would have “increased government spending.” In reality, they would have had the opposite as each change would have accepted a cut proposed by Dunleavy into the budget.

If every amendment had been accepted—which was incredibly unlikely given the subcommittee’s political layout—state spending would have been cut by about $17 million, according to the subcommittee’s documents.

Post walkout

Instead of holding up-or-down votes on the proposed changes, Independent Rep. Ortiz and the remaining Democrats blew through Dunleavy’s proposed changes with the outcome you might expect.

“Item number 15, to delete funding for Parents as Teachers. Is there a motion?” Ortiz asked. “Seeing no motion, item number 15 is not adopted.”

It continued like that through the 36 proposed changes put forward by Dunleavy.

“Item number 20, eliminate funding for the State Council on the Arts. Is there a motion?” he asked. “Seeing no motion, item number 20 is not adopted.”

A motion to adopt any one of the changes would have brought the proposed change up for a vote by the committee.

“Item number 35, to eliminate the WWAMI program—the Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho medical education program known as WWAMI—is there a motion on number 35?” he asked. “Seeing no motion on item number 35, it is not adopted.”

The lack of changes to the budget means the Department of Education and Early Development’s budget is largely unchanged from the one approved by the Legislature in 2018.

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, said she was disappointed in the walkout.

“I believe it’s really unfortunate that any representative charged with representing 17,000-18,000 Alaskans would knowingly and willingly step away from that responsibility under a manufactured lack of clarity,” she said.

Why it matters

There’s been a lot of debate about how the closeout process will work this year. The subcommittees are taking the adjusted budget prepared by the Legislative Finance Division, which is more or less a status quo budget, and are then deciding which pieces of the Dunleavy budget to include, if any.

House Minority Leader Rep. Lance Pruitt, whose wife has a communications contract with the Dunleavy administration, has cried foul on the process.

“This is my first time in my nine years where we’ve have not taken the precedence of starting with a budget introduced by the governor,” he said during a special order speech last week. “Instead we’re saying we’re going to set that aside, and we’re going to go ahead and keep the status quo going.”

What he doesn’t acknowledge is that this year’s process appears to be essentially what the Republican House and Pruitt employed the last time they were in power. The 2016 closeout produced by the House Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development subcommittee chaired by Pruitt frequently compares the committee’s proposal to the status quo base budget, treating the former Gov. Bill Walker’s budget as a proposal.

The big difference now—other than the governor’s political party—is that the process adopted by this year’s House is that it’s asking legislators to put their support of the governor’s proposals on the record.

Had Johnson, Revak and Carpenter stuck around, they would have had to put themselves on the record supporting cuts that have so far proved to be thoroughly unpopular with the public with motions to adopt and subsequent votes.

Instead, their walkout allows them to keep any specific cuts at arm’s length.

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