‘It is not hopeless.’ Thousands plea for veto overrides on eve of vote

Thousands rally in support of the University of Alaska and against the vetoes made by Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy during a rally headlined by Portugal. The Man on July 9, 2019. (Photo by Matt Buxton/TMS)

More than 2,000 people from all walks of life attended a rally on the University of Alaska Anchorage Campus, calling on legislators to override more than $400 million in vetoes handed down by the governor.

The Alaska Legislature is scheduled to take up Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s 182 line-item vetoes today that did everything from eliminate benefits to low-income seniors, early education programs and the state’s arts program to gutting public broadcasting, homelessness programs and the University of Alaska.

The event was headlined by Alaska-grown band Portugal. The Man but much of the time was dedicated to giving speakers, almost entirely women, a stage to talk about the impacts the cuts would have on Alaska.

There were speakers from rural Alaska, urban Alaska and those who directly benefited from programs and those who used programs to benefit others. The message was the same across the board: “Call your friends, call your families, call your legislators and tell them that Alaskans take care of each other.”

The biggest applause of the night, though, was reserved for 95-year-old constitutional delegate Vic Fischer, who called on the crowd to contact their legislators and override the vetoes. He said the collection of Alaskans before him was the most exciting assembly of Alaskans since statehood.

As for the Alaska Constitution, he said “It worked extremely well until the current governor took over and has been destroying Alaska.”

Vic Fischer speaks at a rally calling on legislators to overturn the govenror’s vetoes on July 9, 2019. (Photo by Matt Buxton/TMS)

The reality, though, is that with 22 legislators held out in Wasilla there aren’t the votes to override any vetoes. It takes 45 votes to override the governor’s veto and currently only 36 legislators have convened in Juneau.

The Wasilla holdouts labelled themselves proudly as “22 strong” on Tuesday, pledging that they’d rather follow the lead of the governor than the outpouring of support from their constituents to restore funding to things like the Senior Benefits Program, the University of Alaska or other programs.

And it’s not just been constituent outreach that’s sounded off on the elections, but local leaders, business groups and many others. The Anchorage Chamber of Commerce announced it opposes the $3,000 PFD that the governor has prioritized over all other services, the regional accreditation group for universities warned that the cuts could throw the legitimacy of the University of Alaska into question, and regional Alaksa Native non-profit Kawerak President Melanie Bahnke told legislators that the cuts would mean dire things for her community of Nome.

“(You asked) ‘Will these vetoes cause people to die?'” Bahnke told the House Finance Committee on Tuesday, talking about how the cuts to the homelessness programs would force cutbacks at the community’s wintertime shelter. “For our region, that’s an answer I can provide. The answer is yes. … You can change the tide, or you can go down in history as Alaska drowned.”

Meanwhile, legislators who’ve refused or found excuses not to be in Juneau today have suggested some sort of negotiated compromise—likely tied to a $3,000 PFD—is a more productive way of addressing the cuts and concerns than forcing them to put themselves on the record with politically damaging votes. Such a plan would likely come as little comfort for seniors who had their benefits erased over a weekend because a separate bill would not only take potentially months, but it would also be subject to another veto.

At the rally, Fischer closed his speech with a reminder that the power ultimately rests with the people and is exerted through elections.

“It is not hopeless. I see thousands of young people here. What are you going to do next year? Vote, yes, vote. Vote. Vote. Anyone who is not registered, go and register to vote because that is your power. You have the right; you have the authority to contact legislators. Do it. Every voice counts. Every signature counts. Every phone call counts. Each of you counts,” he said. “This a Democracy, and we will not be cowed, we will not go away. You and I and all the people around you will be here in the next election and we’ll clean House and Senate both.”

The joint floor session is scheduled today at 11:30 a.m.

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