Lawmakers talk among themselves during a break of a joint session of the Alaska Legislature Thursday, July 11, 2019, in Juneau, Alaska. Lawmakers are meeting for a second day to consider overriding Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget vetoes, but still don’t have the needed 45 votes as about a third of lawmakers continue to meet in Wasilla instead of Juneau. (Michael Penn/The Juneau Empire via AP)

Lawmakers talk among themselves during a break of a joint session of the Alaska Legislature Thursday, July 11, 2019, in Juneau, Alaska. Lawmakers are meeting for a second day to consider overriding Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget vetoes, but still don’t have the needed 45 votes as about a third of lawmakers continue to meet in Wasilla instead of Juneau. (Michael Penn/The Juneau Empire via AP)

Efforts to override vetoes quashed

Without enough lawmakers in Juneau, legislators look to next steps

Efforts to override Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s vetoes, totaling $444 million, were quashed ahead of last Friday’s 11:59 p.m. deadline when the lawmakers convening in Juneau adjourned until Wednesday, July 17.

Since Monday, lawmakers have been split between Wasilla, where Dunleavy appointed the second special session, and the Alaska Capitol in Juneau. Kenai Peninsula lawmakers have been split too. Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai/Soldotna, joined lawmakers in Juneau, as did Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak. Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Kenai/Soldotna reported to Wasilla with fellow Republicans on Monday, but returned to Nikiski later in the week. Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, also went to Wasilla.

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Kenai/Soldotna, did not attend either session, as he was previously excused for commercial fishing. Micciche said that he’s been in contact with most of the other legislators while away, actively engaging in finding a compromise for the lingering issues regarding the budget and the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.

“We have a lot of work to do, but I think everyone knows where that work is,” Micciche said on Friday. “It could be efficient, relatively quick, and I think it could have the scent of a perfect compromise where everyone is unhappy on these three sides that we’re looking at, which is the right in the Legislature, the left in the Legislature, and the governor’s office.”

Stevens also said there might be a chance for a compromise with the governor. Legislative leaders have been talking with Dunleavy, he said.

“We’re trying to find some common ground with the governor and have a dividend and have some projects, put money back in the various programs,” Stevens said, referring to budget items that have been cut. “It’s all in flux.”

Juneau

Friday, members of the House and Senate in Juneau met in quick technical sessions, and then adjourned until Wednesday.

“Today was the last day for veto overrides and nobody showed up,” Knopp said. “We couldn’t get to 45.”

On Monday, Knopp said lawmakers in Juneau will meet to start addressing a permanent fund dividend the state can afford. He says the lawmakers in Juneau will also see about the feasibility of reversing some of the vetoes that were sustained after Friday’s deadline.

“We’re going to have that discussion and see if that’s doable,” Knopp said. “We’re going to find some way to bring this governor to the table to start negotiations. We’re not done trying. It’s not over.”

Micciche echoed some of these sentiments, saying that a separate appropriations bill will correct the issues with the capital budget as well as return some funding to certain areas. When asked what areas he is specifically concerned about, Micciche said the cuts to the University of Alaska’s budget are “too extreme,” and added that the inability of the House to include a reverse sweep in their proposed budget has threatened programs like scholarships for University of Alaska students and the Power Cost Equalization Fund, which helps rural Alaskans pay down high utility costs.

“Much of the funding in the capital budget did not pass, including the matches for the federal projects that come from DOT funding and other federal highway administration dollars,” Micciche said. “That was a huge problem, so we already have the need for a new appropriations bill or capital budget to correct those, and now we have to sit down and compromise with the administration on the other. Some of the other cuts that many in the Legislature, most in the Legislature feel are problematic or too deep for one year.”

Stevens also said he had concerns about the cuts to the University of Alaska.

“I think they can have some reductions,” he said. “I’m really hesitant to see the governor’s reduction. It would be damaging. Possibly there could be some wiggle room. We could find a compromise between what the governor wanted and what the university was prepared to do.”

Micciche was not present in either Juneau or Wasilla last week, being previously excused for the month of July by a unanimous vote in the Senate to participate in his family’s annual commercial fishing excursion. Micciche said that if he had been in Juneau, he would have voted against the veto override.

But, Micciche said that his presence in either location would not have made a difference when it came to voting for an override and added that he will be there for the votes that matter, specifically when it comes to the capital budget and funding the PFD.

“No one dreamed we would still be in session in July,” Micciche said. “This is part of my family’s Alaskan identity, and partially what we do for a living, but the Legislature comes first … I am always there when it matters. Period.”

Wasilla

Carpenter said lawmakers met at their appointed place of Wasilla Middle School, but did nothing because there wasn’t a quorum.

He said there would be no stalemate between lawmakers if they were following the law. He says what’s going on in Juneau is not legitimate.

“If what was going on in Juneau right now was legitimate they would have put a call on the House and I would have had to go down there,” he said. “The troopers would have come and got me. Because that didn’t happen, it’s proof there is no legitimate session down there. The exact opposite is being reported.”

Carpenter said the law is clear, the governor can call a special session, and he gets to appoint the place and time. He said if lawmakers were concerned about taking care of business, they would have at least come to Wasilla on Monday to change the location of the special session. Article 2, Section 9 of the Alaska Constitution states that special sessions may be called by the governor or two-thirds of the Legislature, and that the governor can limit the scope of subjects discussed in the special session, but does not mention anything about location. Alaska Statute 24.05.100 — passed in 1982 — does mention the location of special sessions, saying that if a special session called by the governor is to be convened at a location other than at the capital, the governor shall designate the location in his proclamation.

Lawmakers opposed to Dunleavy’s decision on the location have argued that, because the constitution does not specify a location, the statute alone does not give the governor the constitutional authority to declare a location other than Juneau for special sessions.

“If the numbers down in Juneau were less worried about sticking one to Dunleavy and giving Dunleavy what he wants and doing more of what they say they’re interested in doing, which is taking care of business, then they would have at least met in Wasilla for one day and decided to go somewhere else,” Carpenter said.

He said this whole year has been nothing but “obstruct Dunleavy.”

Last Thursday night, an official recall effort was launched to remove Dunleavy from the office of governor. Residents spearheading the efforts are meeting in Anchorage on Monday to begin gathering signatures for a petition.

Vance declined to be interviewed for this story and through her legislative aide referred any inquiries to the House Minority Press Secretary, Zachary Freeman.

Next steps

Legislative leaders are communicating with the governor regularly, a press release from the Legislature said.

“We hear and share the sense of anxiety Alaskans feel today as our best efforts to override the budget vetoes fell short,” House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said in the release. “Many paths remain for the Legislature and governor to restore the vetoed programs and services, to fully fund a capital budget, and to pass a PFD.”

The release lists several impacts of the governor’s vetoes to state agencies, and notes there are multiple paths toward a compromise that can avoid the most damaging consequences.

“Senators are keenly aware of the urgency many are feeling today,” Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said in the release. “We want Alaskans to know that the Senate is pursuing every possible avenue for resolution.”

Stevens said the senate is putting together a bill on the PFD it would hold a first reading on Friday, July 19, followed by a second reading on Saturday, July 20. The House is considering a PFD bill that also considers appropriations for items vetoed by Dunleavy.

“I’m anxious to see what they send to us and how the Senate would want to change it or leave it alone,” Stevens said of the House bill.

In a post on her Facebook page, Vance criticized that House bill.

“The actions of the House Finance Chairs by attempting to reverse the vetos (sic) in a PFD bill provide a constitutional challenge because the call of the Special Session specifies a statutory dividend only,” Vance wrote. “I will uphold the LAW.

“I will fight for a full statutory PFD because it fulfills the LAW And is your share of Alaska’s resource wealth!”

Who’s affected

University of Alaska officials on Friday continued planning for a loss of 41% of state funding.

The university, a global leader in Arctic research, was Dunleavy’s biggest veto target. He cut $130 million in state funding for the fiscal year that began July 1 on top of a $5 million cut made by the legislature.

The UA Board of Regents oversees three main campuses in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau plus 13 campuses sprinkled throughout smaller communities.

University officials have already sent out furlough notices to 2,500 employees requiring them to take 10 days of unpaid leave. Regents met Monday in Fairbanks to consider declaring a “financial exigency,” allowing administrators to streamline layoffs. However, the regents tabled action of declaring exigency until the July 30 meeting.

“We’re not asking them for a formal decision about how they’re going to take reductions, where the reductions will be taken,” said UA President Jim Johnsen at a press conference Wednesday. “That would be for the meeting on July 30,”

The administration will not send out blanket pink slips and then pull some back, Johnsen said, but will attempt a strategic approach. If multiple campuses offer degrees in a certain field of study, he said, some could be eliminated.

Classes for the fall semester will go on as scheduled, he said. Nonacademic programs would be the first targets for rapid cost reduction, including athletics, Johnsen said.

“In a financial climate like we’re talking about, with cuts of this scale, everything has to be on the table,” Johnsen said.

A $135 million loss correlates to about 1,300 positions, Johnsen said, but the “tidal wave-size” ripple effects from the loss of connected funding, such as federal research grants, likely will affect 2,000 positions.

Closing all 13 satellite campuses would save only $30 million. Closing one major campus would defeat the UA mission of making higher education available where most of the population lives, he said.

Dunleavy also eliminated or reduced funding for early childhood education, public libraries, Medicaid dental coverage, behavioral health treatment grants, the Alaska State Council on the Arts, and public broadcasting. On Monday, the state arts council closed, making Alaska the only state in the nation without an arts council.

He eliminated funding for the senior benefits program, which paid cash to poor senior citizens, ocean rangers who monitored cruise ship discharges, and the Alaska Legal Service Corp, which provides free help to poor Alaskans in civil lawsuits.

Dunleavy also reduced money to reimburse school districts for school construction, shifting that debt to municipal taxpayers.

Hearing from constituents

Micciche, Carpenter, Knopp and Stevens all say they’ve heard from many people this week. Knopp said in the last few days he’s received nearly 3,000 emails.

Carpenter said he hasn’t counted the emails, but it’s been a lot.

Micciche said he’s received thousands of calls and emails, and that about 95% of the correspondence has come from outside his district. Carpenter said the same.

“I have heard more from people outside of my district, than I have inside my district,” Carpenter said.

Knopp said about 95% of the letters he’s received called on him to override the vetoes.

He said residents in Fairbanks and the Southeast are concerned about how the cuts will impact their community. He said he’s also heard from business people who are concerned the Legislature doesn’t have a capital budget.

“(Letters) come from all across the spectrum,” he said. “Now, we’re getting a lot of thank you emails for our efforts. There’s been quite a lot of outreach this week.”

Stevens said that before the special session most of the comments he received were “you better make sure you give us a $3,000 dividend,” he said.

After the governor’s vetoes, that shifted, with 90% or more of messages to him urging him to override the vetoes.

“I’d say the vast majority of folks have realized that the cost of a $3,000 dividend is in terms of loss of services,” Stevens said.

Stevens also noted another effect of Dunleavy’s vetoes.

“This is the first time in my experience I’ve seen the House and the Senate in agreement against the governor,” he said. “This is quite different. I’ve never see the two bodies so closely aligned.”

Knopp and Carpenter both said that many of the constituent correspondence came from those involved in the university system.

“I’ll be perfectly honest, the ones I have reviewed so far — the vast majority, 95% — are involved with the university system in some form or fashion,” Carpenter said. “It doesn’t surprise me in the least. If I was looking at having my job cut and I had a way to influence my employer to not cut my job I would probably be doing that. I don’t hold any ill will against them. I just have to recognize that that’s what it is. It isn’t unbiased.”

Knopp said he’s working to restore some of Dunleavy’s vetoes, which economists said could put the state back into a recession if sustained.

“The fact that the last day is today to override, doesn’t mean we’re done,” Knopp said Friday. “We’re not quitting. We’re trying to get some of this stuff restored.”

Micciche said he hoped the Legislature will convene in Anchorage next week. He said that lawmakers are currently working to make that happen.

“I’m hoping everyone comes back to Juneau,” Stevens said. “…I’m hoping to create good government we can all get in one place.”

Carpenter said he hopes the rest of the Legislature will meet in Wasilla on Monday, and tackle the issue of the permanent fund dividend.

“It’s the only thing they can come together to work on,” Carpenter said. “I hope it’s a good weekend to reflect and we can all come together and do the right thing in Wasilla or wherever the Legislature decides upon meeting in Wasilla.”

The Associated Press and Homer News editor Michael Armstrong contributed to this report. Reach Victoria Petersen at vpetersen@peninsulaclarion.com. Reach Brian Mazurek at bmazurek@peninsulaclarion.com. Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.

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