Divided: 2 special sessions and the protests that followed
The beginning of the Alaska Legislature's second special session was underscored by the deep divide among lawmakers who not only can’t come to terms on the size of the Permanent Fund dividend, but couldn’t agree on where to meet.
Senate and House leaders believe dropping the gavel in Juneau has set in motion efforts to determine a Permanent Fund dividend and address Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s $444 million budget vetoes with an override vote.
But 21 of 60 lawmakers showed up at Wasilla Middle School, where Dunleavy said in a June 13 proclamation the session should be held.
A predictable showing
The respective actions reflect how each group interprets state law and the constitution when it comes to selecting a venue.
Dunleavy called lawmakers back into session to address the amount of the PFD, insisting a payout estimated to be $3,000 for eligible Alaskans.
However, on Monday he did not submit a bill for the appropriation, essentially failing to acknowledge the legitimacy of lawmakers presence in Juneau. Even as Dunleavy didn't file legislation, the House introduced its own PFD bill: HB 2001, calling for a $1,600 dividend.
Following Dunleavy's order
Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, said she knows the special session location may seem like a lot of fighting with each other for no reason, which has increased the public's frustration.
Around 10 a.m. many people lined the Parks Highway at Newcomb Park to rally for the full PFD.
"Well I think it's great he called the special session here," said Kelley Cizek of Soldotna. "I think it's unfortunate that a lot of the legislators are not coming under what he's requested and following what I think is the law by the constitution."
Around noon, several groups gathered outside Wasilla Middle School to separately advocate for veto overrides, a full PFD and to save the state by following the law.
"I understand it's a pissing match between the two sides of the Legislature," Dave Musgrave with the Mat-Su Coalition said, "and they're kind of playing chicken."
The standoff is toying with the five days to vote on all 182 line items that were vetoed by the governor in the operating budget.
"I think we're running not only the university into the ground," Musgrave said, "I think we're going to run the state into the ground."
Costello, however, held her ground that lawmakers in Wasilla are correctly following the state constitution.
"I’m not sure what to call what is happening in Juneau," she said. "It's hard to call that a special session because as I mentioned, special sessions have to be called. It is not clear what their basis is for not coming to this call here, but instead to a different location. They believe they have the authority to do so and that authority is not to be found anywhere in the state constitution."
Going to Wasilla even cost Costello her position as majority leader and a seat on the Rules Committee.
Costello said she was not surprised.
“I’ve been trying to work with them,” she said. “They didn’t seem that open to it. I still feel that I’m a leader and I am still going to fight for what I believe is right.”
A House Finance co-chair may face similar fate.
Staying in the Capitol
In Costello's absence, Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, was named Senate majority leader in Juneau Monday.
“She chose not to attend the session, so I need a majority leader, so we changed her out,” said Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, who added the change is permanent.
Another leading lawmaker, House Finance Co-Chair Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, also went to Wasilla. House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said no action has been taken, but the caucus will be discussing it. Wilson could not be reached for comment.
The House and Senate approved holding a joint session on Wednesday. They need 45 votes to override Dunleavy’s 182 line-item vetoes.
Giessel said the push is for a single override vote, rather than breaking out line items for individual votes. Both Giessel and Edgmon acknowledge they don’t have 45 votes yet, but believe things could change as public pressure continues mounting.
“Roughly speaking, we’re still short obviously,” Edgmon said. “I don’t think that’s a surprise to anybody. Public pressure is building across the state for the Legislature to take action on the governor’s vetoes.”
Edgmon and Giessel say they have received thousands of correspondence pushing for an override, sometimes as many as 60 to 70 an hour.
An hour before lawmakers gaveled in, hundreds gathered in front of the Capitol steps chanting, “No vetoes," and “Override!” while holding signs that read:
"Education is our future"
"Override the veto"
"Ain’t No Jive. AK Needs 45"
“The fallacy that with these $444 million more in cuts Alaska would somehow remain open for business —for the sake of our recovering economy, we’re here to ask the Alaska legislators to rise in unison and override these damaging vetoes,” former Juneau Assemblywoman Kate Troll told the crowd.
The hope is the legislators in Wasilla will join the others in Juneau on Wednesday.
Lawmakers in Wasilla say they are staying put until told otherwise.
Heather Hintze contributed to this report.
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