Unyielding: Alaskans and lawmakers on both sides unmoved over vetoes, special session
Gov. Mike Dunleavy's $444 million budget vetoes have triggered an impassioned conversation around the state.
The governor's line-item vetoes include a more than $130 million cut to the University of Alaska system, the elimination of funding for early childhood programs and elimination of the state's senior benefits program.
‘These are human rights issues’
Alaska-grown, Grammy Award-winning band Portugal. The Man made a special trip home to join the Save Our State rally in Anchorage Tuesday evening in opposition to Dunleavy's budget cuts.
"Good to be back here, sad under these circumstances but hey man, we show up," band member Zach Carothers said.
Guitarist Eric Howk said the governor’s line-item vetoes go against what the group stands for.
"I think we just see vulnerable youth, in terms of early education, in some of the senior benefits that are being taken away, and that's ignoring the future and getting rid of our past. That just doesn't stand with us," Howk said.
The group said joining Tuesday’s rally wasn’t a political statement, but them taking a stand on human issues.
"It's not politicized," Howk said. "These are humanist issues, these are human rights issues, and to think that you're on one side or the other about protecting the elders or educating the youth is bonkers."
Hundreds of people showed up to the rally, encouraging lawmakers to override the governor’s vetoes.
‘I want it cut’
Those who agree with Dunleavy's cuts say it's exactly what the state needs.
Small business owner Eric Schmidt says like a company, the state has to operate within its means.
"I'm in favor of the cuts because it's going to move us toward balancing the budget which is just a fiduciary responsibility, a responsible thing to do that hasn't been done for decades,” he said. “It's nothing that should be unusual, it’s just the way state government should run.”
One topic that has garnered international attention is the governor’s cuts to the University of Alaska system, but Schmidt said the decision is reasonable.
“The University, for instance, whining about $130 million cut. Well, it needs to be operating profitably, if it isn't then they need to reorganize and restructure and do whatever they are doing. Privatize things, if they are dependent upon that chunk of money, they are not operating properly,” he said.
Dalton Stokes, owner of SAV-ON Flooring, also agrees with the governor's cuts. He says a full PFD won't hurt the state economy, but help it thrive.
"First off it's our money and you know, they took our mineral rights as individuals so they owe us this. It was a deal. You made a deal and you need to stand by it. That's the first thing, not only that, look at what this PFD could do. If I was a kid, you could pull that together with another friend of yours, you could open a real business. This is Google world, you can do this now. You can have a Google page for nothing. Get [yourself] a store front, you've got a store going,” he said.
Stokes also said he feels the cuts to UA are necessary.
“I can't even hire somebody from that. These people aren't smart enough, flat out. They are not smart enough to even work for me and I'm a nobody. So you're producing nothing man and I want it cut, just cut it and give it back to the people. Governor, thank you for what you're doing. Finally, somebody will stand up, we're too busy. We're at work every day, I start my job at 7 a.m., just stroking it. You homeless people — I don't want to hear it anymore. I work too hard for my money, you get nothing. Get a job, that's what you get,” he said.
Stokes and Schmidt say the reason they are not participating in rallies supporting the governor’s cuts is because they and many others are too busy working.
Vowed to stay
Lawmakers at the special session in Wasilla are holding firm on their decision to follow the governor’s call.
Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, spoke for a little more than a minute on the floor of the Wasilla Middle School gym on Tuesday morning.
Nearly one-third of lawmakers haven’t gone to Juneau and about a dozen of them were present Tuesday. Costello said some were absent due to other responsibilities.
Because they don’t have a quorum, the legislators adjourned and met with the handful of people who showed up to watch the session.
Many of the lawmakers said they will absolutely not go to Juneau unless Dunleavy calls them there.
“In large font: No,” said Anchorage Republican Rep. Laddie Shaw.
"If you want action to be legitimate and legal, your best place is to be here," said Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, referring to Wasilla Middle School. "Unless there's a court ruling that states otherwise."
Several of the Mat-Su delegation members said they’d been receiving hundreds of phone calls and emails, but not from people in their district. They said rallies like the Save Our State event with Portugal. The Man have no impact on their decisions.
“I think Portugal. The Man will draw people to the Alaska Airlines Center that really probably don’t care much about the veto overrides underway. They just want to hear a great band,” Hughes said.
Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer, agreed.
“I’m sure it’s a fun rally for people that are showing up to do whatever, but Portugal. The Man is not going to have a lot of impact on how I make public policy. My constituents will, I listen to them a whole lot more,” Johnson said.
The Legislature needs 45 votes to override Dunleavy’s vetoes, but that doesn’t seem likely with the number of people who’ve vowed to stay in Wasilla.
Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, said he’s in favor of the governor’s vetoes.
“If we’re going to talk about reducing the dividend and oil tax credits and taxes and everything else, reducing government spending and waste and the footprint of government has to be a part of the conversation,” Shower said.
Rep. Shaw said he would not vote to override the vetoes, but did have a few concerns.
“The Arts Council, for example, it has a veterans therapy program that I wasn’t aware of that is for the benefit of post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury and that’s important to me so that’s something I want to talk to the governor about,” Shaw said.
The lawmakers in Wasilla were waiting for a lawsuit to be filed that could decide the legitimacy of either the Juneau or Wasilla special session.
Shaw was optimistic both sides will come together in the end.
“We’re trying to do what’s best for the whole and we’re sort of lost in the shuffle,” Shaw said.
Paths to restored funding
Lawmakers in Juneau on Wednesday will hold a vote on whether to override the vetoes. However, only 38 legislators have reported to Juneau as of Tuesday — 14 senators and 24 representatives.
Lawmakers say their offices have been inundated with correspondence, either via email or phone, imploring them to override Dunleavy’s vetoes since he announced them June 28.
“I think the opposition to the vetoes has surpassed my expectations,” said House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham. “I think people are very passionate about wanting to see important government services fully funded.”
On Friday, the Alaska Bankers Association wrote to Edgmon, as well as Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage.
The association wrote:
“There will be also a downstream effects, prolonging uncertainty and increasing risk, leading to higher costs for Alaska’s businesses and families and lower level of economic opportunity in the future.”
The bankers group was among more than a dozen organizations that testified before the House Finance Committee Tuesday afternoon.
Another was Alaska State Home Building Association President Richard Carr, who wrote:
“Vetoes of this magnitude are severe enough to generate risks that we fear will be detrimental to our home building membership and Alaskans in general. Our organization takes the position that an override of the budget vetoes would still advance budget reductions made by the Legislature and allow for the reductions to continue in upcoming budgets.”
But even if lawmakers fail to override any of Dunleavy’s 182 line-item vetoes, Giessel said money can still be restored in other budget bills.
“You know if we aren’t successful with veto overrides, there are some folks that would like to re-appropriate money for those items in another appropriation bill,” she said, “so that’s also a priority.”
The capital budget, which Dunleavy signed on Tuesday, still does not have approved funding. Additionally, lawmakers could introduce a supplemental budget.
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