Lawmakers fail to override Governor's budget vetoes

Protestors greeted lawmakers at Wasilla Middle School Wednesday morning, the same day a vote was scheduled in Juneau to override Gov. Mike Dunleavy's vetoes of the budget. (Courtesy Adam Greenberg)

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Alaska's Legislature failed to override Gov. Mike Dunleavy's budget vetoes Wednesday in a vote that was largely symbolic.

Thirty-seven of 38 lawmakers present in Juneau voted in favor of overriding the vetoes. Rep. Tammie Wilson, R - North Pole, was the only detractor among the group gathered in Juneau.

Forty-five lawmakers are required to support a veto override. Twenty-two lawmakers were not present in Juneau -- some were excused, some were in Wasilla, where the governor designated the special session to be held.

Protestors shouted over lawmakers in Wasilla during the invocation and the pledge of allegiance as lawmakers tried to start a meeting of the special session called by Gov. Mike Dunleavy at Wasilla Middle School.

The protestors, who started outside with symbolic chains, took seats in the gymnasium that had lawmakers’ nametags on them, and chanted “Override 45!” referring to the number of lawmakers’ votes required to override the governor’s vetoes, and “Don’t hide, override!”

During the invocation, they chanted “Indigenous prayers on Indigenous Lands.”

The protestors, some of whom were with the group Defend the Sacred, which has in the past taken a stand against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, then stood up and followed lawmakers to the door as they left the room.

In another room, Rep. Sharon Jackson, R- Eagle River, told reporters that the protestors’ shouting over lawmakers was rude and unproductive.

“Their presence was rude, it was loud, which took away any opportunity for dialogue. We were planning on doing our meeting, we were going to do our prayer, pledge to the flag, and then adjourn and come out in the hall, and we would have been happy to speak with them. We understand they want to be heard, and we are willing to listen, but in a screaming environment, it wasn’t helping for them, nor us, because there was no communication done”

In Juneau, the Senate and House both gaveled in, holding an invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance before recessing in deferment to the joint session.

Twenty-four House members were tallied present for the joint session, and 14 Senators. In Juneau, Sens. Mia Costello, Lora Reinbold, and Mike Shower were tallied absent. Sens. Shelley Hughes, and David Wilson, who were both present in Wasilla, and Sen. Peter Micciche, were marked excused.

Reps. Ben Carpenter, R - Nikiski, Sharon Jackson, R-Eagle River, DeLena Johnson, R - Palmer, Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River, Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, Josh Revak, R-Anchorage, Laddie Shaw, R-Anchorage, Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, R-Wasilla, Dave Talerico, R- Healy, Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, and Sarah Vance, R-Homer, were marked absent. Rep. Geroge Rauscher was excused.

No roll call was taken in Wasilla Wednesday.

On June 28, Dunleavy vetoed $444 million from the budget passed by lawmakers, including a $130 million cut to the University of Alaska system. Other cuts include $50 million from Medicaid, and $48 million -- or half -- of the state's share of school bond debt.

Most lawmakers in the joint session in Juneau spoke vehemently against Gov. Dunleavy’s vetoes. They cited testimony from seniors whose Senior Benefits were cut, hearing from Alaskans who aren’t the “usual suspects” when it comes to speaking out politically, said the cuts to the University would devastate the institution, and called the cuts “using a chainsaw” and “pulling the rug out” from under Alaskans.

The debate over the location of the session, some argued, was just a distraction.

“We have 38 legislators in Juneau today. Twenty-two are absent,” said Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R – Anchorage. “The argument of the location, whether it be in Juneau or Wasilla, is a diversion. It’s a red herring to mask the real issues of what we are facing here today,” she continued.

But many also criticized the vetoes as evidence of the lack of a plan from Gov. Dunleavy.

“We need a fiscal plan. What I see again and again is the governor has a single priority, and it is not a plan,” said Anchorage Democrat Rep. Matt Claman. “That priority is $3,000 dividend, $3,000 dividend, $3,000 dividend,” he continued. “This veto override is about power. The governor has a single priority; he does not have a plan.”

Von Imhof and others said the vote for a full $3,000 Permanent Fund Dividend would be a popular political choice, but poor policy choice.

“The time for campaign rhetoric left this room a long time ago. Our future is on the line and we can’t even get basic answers regarding the administration’s analysis of the impacts of the huge reductions in state spending. Again, unacceptable,” von Imhof said.

As to the payout of a $3,000 PFD, von Imhof had this to say: “While you may not have a job, or a home, or heat, or medical care, you’ll have $3,000 in your pocket. Better make it last, because that’s all you’re going to get.”

Rep. Tammie Wilson, R – North Pole, was the lone dissenter among those lawmakers gathered in Juneau. Wilson said she preferred to tackle the vetoes individually, outside of the budget veto process.
“What could we do today? We’ve been here for two hours, having a good discussion, it’s a discussion I think we absolutely needed to have,” Wilson. “But we can’t override the vetoes without 45 votes, and even with my math skills, we can’t get there if we don’t have 45 people.”

Wilson suggested an appropriation bill, or a statute that would fund some of the programs affected by the cuts. She said her no vote on the vetoes was hoping for compromise and a more gradual step-down process.

“But my only option here right now is all-or-nothing, and I can’t tell you that all 182 items are good or bad,” Wilson said. “Because there’s 182 items that we could be spending our time in looking at, which is our responsibility.”

In Wasilla, some of the lawmakers present said they sought to have separate dialogue, and to address the vetoes and funding concerns individually, instead of as a bulk action.

“I still think that going through with (the vote) right now is probably more for political reasons to get people on record, or to try to prove a point,” said Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, the House Minority Leader, “as opposed to trying to work with people to see if there are ways the whole group could come together and agree on something. I still think, unfortunately, politics are at play.”

Tuesday, legislative leaders acknowledged they didn't have 45 secured votes to override the vetoes.

About 20 lawmakers have been gathering in Wasilla, where Gov. Dunleavy called lawmakers to session. Monday, 14 senators of the 20 member body were in Juneau, and 23 of 40 representatives, for a total of 37 lawmakers.

Forty lawmakers are required to agree to call themselves into their own special session, a crux of the argument between lawmakers on where to hold the special session. Just 39 lawmakers agreed to hold the session in Juneau. Lawmakers meeting in Wasilla have not had enough lawmakers to constitute a quorum and conduct official business.

A former state lawmaker filed a lawsuit Wednesday afternoon to compel the lawmakers in Juneau to move to Wasilla, and to invalidate any actions taken in Juneau.

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