School voucher debate comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb
JUNEAU – The buzz began at the Capitol Tuesday when Senate Republican majority leaders announced they were ready to put Senate Joint Resolution 9 — the school voucher amendment — up for a vote.
What transpired next was largely a game of inside baseball, with many lawmakers failing to see the strategy and people on both sides of the debate wondering if the public education system was poised for a radical change.
Longtime political observers were puzzled. They said the timing was all wrong. A measure which is too close to call typically comes up for a vote at the end of session, when lawmakers start cutting deals to get what they want.
Sen. Mike Dunleavy, one of the main sponsors of SJR 9, said he thought the votes would be there in time for the Wednesday Senate floor session.
“We’re still having conversations with folks, but as we speak now, I’m still optimistic,” said Dunleavy at Tuesday’s Senate majority news conference.
SJR 9 has also been known as the “School Choice Amendment.” It seeks to amend the state constitution to allow private and religious schools to receive state money.
Constitutional amendments require more than a simple majority. Instead, it will take a two-thirds vote in each house to put the amendment on the ballot. In the Senate, which is made up of 20 members, 14 votes are needed for passage.
Or you can look at it another way: Seven “no” votes are needed to kill it.
And with a block of Democrats lined up against it — as well as a few Republicans — it appeared the measure did not have the necessary support. At the very least, the margins were extremely close.
Just before the scheduled Senate floor session, Democrats speculated about the numbers.
“They assured people they have the votes. We don’t know that that’s true,” said Sen. Berta Gardner. “Whatever happens, somebody’s going to be surprised.”
Senate minority leader Hollis French reflected on the vote ahead.
“We are approaching a moment of great gravity. This is a constitutional amendment,” French said. “Stakes are extremely high.”
Gardner, an Anchorage Democrat, said if Republicans came up a few votes short and the measure failed, it would be their own fault because they didn’t allow SJR 9 to be heard in the Senate Education Committee.
“Because it hasn’t been vetted in the Education Committee, nobody knows what any program would look like,” Gardner said. “That’s reason right there to vote against it.”
Democrats also said they had received an overwhelming amount of emails and letters from constituents opposed to the amendment – and they speculated the same thing was happening to their Republican counterparts, giving them second thoughts about supporting SJR 9.
Supporters of the measure made a full-court press Wednesday morning, visiting lawmakers on the fence as well as those whose opposition to the amendment is widely known.
Did they or didn’t they have the votes?
At 11:00 a.m., a troubling sign: Word came that the Senate session had been pushed back to the afternoon.
Then finally, the suspense that had been building suddenly fell flat.
News filtered throughout the building that SJR 9 was being sent back to the Senate Rules Committee for review.
“At this point, I think the issue is as dead as a doornail. I don’t think it’s coming back,” said Sen. Gary Stevens. “They counted noses and realized that it would fail miserably.”
Stevens, a Republican from Kodiak, is chairman of the Senate Education Committee and one of the more vocal opponents of the resolution.
He believes that’s the reason why the measure wasn’t sent to his committee; because majority leaders feared he would hold it hostage. Stevens said he wouldn’t have held it back. But at this point, it doesn’t matter. It’s too late in the session for the bill to be heard in his committee.
Stevens said the whole SJR 9 debate has been a very painful experience for him.
“It’s just hard to tell people you really like, you think a lot of them but you just don’t agree with them,” the senator said.
Stevens said he believes state funding of private schools would be a raid on the state treasury.
Dunleavy and other supporters of SJR 9 have said that’s an exaggeration – that if public schools have to compete with private schools for students, it will not only give families more choice but bring about innovation.
SJR 9 supporters also argue the state already spends money on religious schools like Brigham Young University, which offers online correspondence courses to high school students.
Dunleavy said he made the decision to pull the bill from the Senate floor because he was waiting for some research to arrive. He said he wanted to show it to senators who had questions about the amendment.
“You haven’t seen the last of SJR 9,” Dunleavy said. “Believe me, it was close.”
Senate majority leader John Coghill thinks a timeout is a good idea.
“It’s a big question. A lot of pressure. A lot of different public policy debates,” Coghill said. “Let people do some studying. If their comfort level goes up, we put it back on the floor.”
Gov. Sean Parnell, in his state of the state address, pushed for passage of SJR 9. He said at the very least, there needed to be serious discussion of the amendment.
And that appears to be something senators on both sides of the issue were looking forward to on Wednesday. They were primed to do verbal battle, one that in an election year fires up the base.
As for Dunleavy, he believes he’ll ultimately give the base what they want.
“As always, I’m optimistic,” Dunleavy said.
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