JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) — A senate committee meeting was suddenly cut short Saturday after an Anchorage senator attempted to override the committee chairman and force a vote by its members on a resolution to put the Permanent Fund Dividend in the Constitution.
But the Anchorage senator, Bill Wielechowski, a Democrat, lost the parliamentary battle to the chairman, Sen. John Coghill, a Republican from North Pole. The meeting and its result put on public display the power of committee chairs over legislation they don’t like — even when a majority of members have a different opinion.
Three bills were scheduled to be heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee after a rarely used parliamentary procedure, Uniform Rule 48, was invoked by committee members who felt their legislation was being killed by Coghill. The rule allows a majority of committee members to band together to supersede a chairman’s decision to table discussions.
“That Rule 48, the last time it was used that we could find was 1990,” said Sen. Mike Shower, a Republican from Wasilla who is not a member of the Senate’s governing Republican-led coalition. “It was made so if bills were sitting for a long time inside a committee you can require that the committee chair will have a chance to hear them or they can simply move on.”
On the day of the forced meeting, only Wielechowski’s Senate Joint Resolution 1 was heard before Coghill appeared to outmaneuver the dissenters and shut down proceedings.
Wielechowski was given the opportunity to pitch his constitutional amendment, but Coghill denied his request to open up the measure to public testimony. When Wielechowski made a motion to vote his PFD amendment out of the committee, Coghill objected to the motion, adjourned, and immediately walked out of the room with another powerful member of the committee, Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks. Wielechowski, Shower and Sen. Mia Costello, an Anchorage Republican, lingered in the room after the sudden departure of Coghill, wondering out loud if they could continue the committee hearing without the chairman.
The clerk in the room said she didn’t believe they could.
The three measures scheduled to be heard against the chairman’s will included the dividend amendment and Costello’s bill, Senate Bill 127, to repeal and replace Senate Bill 91, the criminal justice reform measure of 2016 that has been blamed by opponents for some of the rise in crime in Alaska. Coghill was the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 91.
Another bill scheduled for the aborted hearing, House Bill 214, would rename the Alaska Safe Children’s Act to Bree’s Law, named after Bree Moore, a young woman killed in Anchorage by her boyfriend.
In an interview following the committee hearing, Coghill said he has made it clear that he doesn’t intend to let those bills out of the judiciary committee. He said the scheduling of the hearing alone fulfills Rule 48, despite two of the senators never getting a chance to pitch their bills and none of the bills coming to a vote.
“[The bills] got to my committee, and since I disagree with them, and taking a temperature of the building, I’m probably in a good place there. I just don’t intend to move them along,” Coghill said.
Now all three bills are in limbo with the legislative session in its waning days.
Coghill said he would agree to reschedule the hearings for Costello’s repeal bill and the Bree’s Law bill if the senators presenting the bills to the committee agreed not to force a vote. Wielechowski has already said he will continue to attempt a motion on the Permanent Fund amendment every time the committee meets, so Coghill said he will not reschedule the hearing.
“This is outrageous,” said Wielechowski in an interview following the hearing. “This is a flagrant attempt to disregard the will of the people to not allow the public the opportunity to testify. It was a sham hearing. All Alaskans should be outraged.”