The Alaska Legislature returned on Thursday with another opportunity to override the Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s vetoes, hoping that legislators might return from their holdout in Wasilla. But by midday Thursday only Sen. David Wilson, a Wasilla Republican who had no intention for voting for the overrides, had returned and the Legislature closed the door with one full day remaining to override the vetoes.
“We are not done,” said Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, to the gathering of 39 legislators. “We are continuing discussions with the governor.”
The day featured impassioned, sometimes-tearful, sometimes furious speeches detailing the impacts of inaction and casting scorn on the 21 legislators who either refused or found an excuse not to be in Juneau on Thursday. The Legislature could reopen its Wednesday 37-1 vote that came eight votes short of the 45 needed to override the governor but kept that maneuver in reserve until the clock runs out.
The Wasilla holdouts—termed by Sen. Bert Stedman as “dissidents” during Thursday’s debate—suggested that an alternative proposal could be the in the works to restore some of the funds that were cut by the governor, which would likely come as part of the push for a $3,000 PFD. The group, headed by Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, had no specifics or timeline available on Thursday.
Groups are already feeling the pain of the vetoes, which went into effect on July 1. Homelessness shelters are preparing to either close or severely reduce hours, low-income seniors have already seen their monthly benefits disappear and the University of Alaska is moving ahead with plans to declare financial exigency, which would put programs, campuses, tenured faculty and athletics on the chopping block.
Still, such a plan is better than nothing.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, closed Thursday’s joint session with a conciliatory tone to Dunleavy and the 21 holdout legislators some 600 miles away.
“We’re willing to compromise. We’re willing to go forward in a conciliatory manner. We know we can’t get our work done without having the full Legislature in place. We know we need the assistance of the executive branch,” he said. “We need to do it as a team.”
The window for the overrides on the operating budget closes Saturday at 1 p.m., five days after the Legislature gaveled into the special session. There doesn’t appear to be much optimism about those chances as both the House and Senate have announced technical sessions for Friday.
Ship of Alaska
The floor speeches of the day were less in number than on Wednesday, and they struck a far more somber and defeated tone.
Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, spoke with worry about the future of his community now that the $130 million cut to the University of Alaska looks like it will hold. In his many elections, Coghill has often found himself at odds with the generally progressive university community but today he was an ally of what is a major element of the community’s economy.
“I’m sad to say one third of my economy is going to drag a big chunk of the economy with it. I’m sad about that,” he said. “We’re going to have going-out-of-business sales on small community businesses.”
Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, said likened the current situation as a ship headed for a lighthouse while the crew argues the lighthouse should be the one change course.
“We are not letting a permanent fund dividend in any amount steal the future of the state,” he said. “We all here support a dividend. None of us here want the dividend to go away and, in fact, we can afford a robust dividend. What we cannot do is we cannot continue to cling to an outdated statutory formula, which can have a singular result which is to run the ship of Alaska up onto a rock, rip out her hull and spill out the precious cargo that many generations before us built with blood, sweat and tears.”
Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, said the cuts are short-sighted and that they give away so much of Alaska’s opportunity.
“I don’t want to lose my Alaska, I don’t want to lose my home, I don’t want to live in a place that makes me wonder why, why we want to sell out so much opportunity for so little,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to me. I doubt it makes any sense to you.”
Anger came from the co-chairs of the Senate Finance Committee, who both spent most of the regular session fruitlessly attempting to get answers and explanations for the proposed cuts from the Dunleavy administration.
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, was particularly fired up when the Legislature took up the overrides Dunleavy had handed down the day before on the capital budget.
“My constituents are having their constitutional rights removed from them by a group of dissident legislators who refuse to come to the constitutionally designated seat, which is Juneau, right here, right now, in this room, in that chair and that chair and that chair and that one and that one and that one,” he said. “They’re not here, they’ve taken my constitutional rights away to stand up for my district.”
He said some of the projects were in his community and he wasn’t even afforded a chance to make the case to the fellow legislators to override the vetoes.
“The constitution says I have five days to exercise that right, but these guys are not showing up for five days,” he said. “I don’t think my constituents are very happy with the functioning or dis-functioning of a group of dissidents running away from their constitutional sworn obligation when they’re elected to be in Juneau at the seat of government to make sure we can exercise our rights. Regardless if they vote for the veto override or not.”
Stedman’s fellow co-chair turned her ire toward the governor and the holdouts for following his lead rather than their own.
“This governor is trying to hamstring the other two branches of government,” she said. “This is the behavior we often see in failing democracies. The last time I checked this is not a dictatorship. We live in a democracy.”