If Tuesday’s meeting of the Senate Finance Committee is going to be the one and only committee hearing we get of this special session (which is starting to look like a distinct possibility), then the final chunk where the senators told us what they really think about Gov. Mike Dunleavy would be worth all the hassle.
In pretty scorching terms even by his standards, Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Bert Stedman blasted the governor’s administration as “dysfunctional” and more interested in scoring petty political points than actually legislating. Much of the hearing served as an overview of the governor’s budget vetoes and the state’s current financial status that was peppered with remarks from committee members about how the governor’s actions just don’t make sense if you really support rural Alaska, economic development or just about anything else.
But it was the governor’s veto of legislative per diem that drew out much of the meeting’s ire. That’s because, as Stedman laid out, the Legislature typically gives deference to the governor’s office (and the courts) over their budget. The last time the House tried to meddle with the governor’s budget, the state came running to the Senate to fix it, which Stedman did.
“We fast forward two years to see this petty political game being played,” he said.
Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, asked if the governor had turned the veto pen on the administration’s per diem. He had not, Legislative Finance Division Director Alexei Painter told the committee. That sparked a discussion around the table.
“The executive branch does receive per diem when various employees fly back and forth between Juneau,” Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage, noted. “They’re not living in Juneau, they’re just traveling back and forth.”
“The governor also gets per diem,” Stedman added, “and we can have those documents pulled for the committee so we can see where the flow of funds are.”
If Dunleavy’s going to break norms for optics, then Stedman sees no reason to stick to them either.
“The Legislature did not add one capital item to the budget, we didn’t add anything. We gave him his budget. I think we need to reconsider that political position as we go forward and see what kind of document we put forward,” he said. “If we’re going to have delayed effective dates in it or not and what we’re going to add or not add, or if we’re even going to start with his budget. We can start from scratch with our own budget on day one and set his aside. We’ll have those discussions and see how it will go.”
And while the governor (and likely the average Alaskan) would paint the Legislature with the broad brush of failure for passing a “defective budget,” Stedman is not quick to forget who it was that was really driving the state to the brink of a shutdown: The Dunleavy-aligned Republicans in the House Minority. It’s their refusal to support the effective date on the budget—a move that was supported by the governor—that threw everything into uncertainty and drove the state the nearest it’s come to a shutdown. He said he’s not keen on the state repeating that.
“We will put a budget out on time and it appears right now that we can do that with a vote of 21 and 11, a simple majority vote, to ensure the state can operate on July 1 regardless of dysfunctionality out of the administration,” he said. “We had two special sessions with the budget waiting to get it funded. To imply that the Legislature as a whole dilly-daddled and burned the clock is just political pandering, so I would expect the committee here will take a rather aggressive attitude and timeframe next winter to get our budget done as soon as possible. … We will do what we can and the way the numbers look now, we’ll be able to avoid the deliberate delay and deliberate train wreck taking us into summer for political purposes.”
Why it matters: Let’s be clear, Stedman’s not wrong. The state was nearly pushed over the edge into a government shutdown entirely by Gov. Dunleavy and his allies who had tried to leverage the continued operation of state government for a larger dividend, PFD payback, anti-abortion language in the budget and a slate of constitutional amendments that would radically alter how state government operates. While putting political leverage to work isn’t new, this was beyond the pale—in large part because it was always clear that the rest of the Legislature wasn’t going to bow down to demands—and put into crystal clear terms that we’re no longer playing by the established norms. The escalation of the fight over the budget’s effective date was always going to require changes in process, and now it looks like Dunleavy and his allies are in for a diminished role.