One week in: Special session budget override attempts, protests and counterprotests
The Legislature remains physically split over where to hold the special session that’s been mired in budget override veto attempts, protests and counterprotests.
Wrapping up their first week, lawmakers are no closer to agreeing on a Permanent Fund dividend amount or how to reconcile broad funding differences.
Thursday was the fourth day of the special session and the second day of the joint session, featuring the House and Senate, in Juneau.
Lawmakers knew they didn’t have enough votes to override any of Dunleavy’s operating budget vetoes or his recently released $10.6 million capital budget vetoes, so they didn’t vote. Still, several lawmakers spoke out against Dunleavy, those who failed to come to Juneau and address the vetoes or the broader impasse the Legislature faces.
Lawmakers got their first look at the post-veto capital budget on Thursday, which still remains largely unfunded. Like the $444 million operating budget vetoes, the capital budget drew similar scorn, even from fellow Republicans.
“This governor is trying to hamstring the two other branches of government,” said Senate Finance Co-chair Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage. “This is the behavior we often see in failing democracies. The last time I checked, Madam President, this is not a dictatorship. We live in a democracy.”
Fellow Co-chair Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, took a rare stance against his close to 20 colleagues who remained in Wasilla.
“It’s not really the veto override [or] the governor, it’s the dissidents that refuse to come to Juneau and stripping me and my citizens — that I’m elected to represent and I’ve represented them for a decade and a half — their constitutional rights and the balance of power,” he said.
Both House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, and Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, say their efforts to restore funding, possibly through another appropriations bill, are not done.
Giessel said they, plus Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, and House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, are talking regularly with Dunleavy.
The governor said last week he would put the capital budget back on the call when lawmakers reported to Wasilla. On Wednesday, he amended that statement to say he would add a capital budget when lawmakers sort out their venue differences.
Additionally, a second lawmaker was stripped of a leadership title this week.
On Monday, Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, lost her job as majority leader, though she still remains part of the Senate’s majority. Now, former House Finance Co-chair Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, is no longer part of the House majority.
Wilson said she was pushed out of the caucus for first not reporting to Juneau with the rest of the group and then for voting against a veto override on Wednesday, finding herself on the short end of a 37-1 vote.
“To use two incidents that have no effect on anything that’s happened. [...] I think I’ve been more than loyal and helping everybody out,” she said.
If she doesn’t join the Republican minority, she would be with Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, who left the caucus over a budget vote.
"Gabrielle and I are lock-step and we’ve already talked," she said. "I’m going to reach out to the minority. You know something. I know how this works. I know how to write amendments. I think you think at some point that if you do all the right things and you work really hard, then everything works out the way it should. Maybe this is the way it’s supposed to be."
In the Valley, the fourth day of the special session brought out supporters for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Dividend defenders and people who oppose the cuts to education seemed to make up a majority of the crowd gathered outside Wasilla Middle School. Inside, spectators found a completely different setup in the gym from the previous days.
On Wednesday, anti-veto protesters stormed the session floor and took over lawmakers’ seats. The following day, the bleachers were pushed back and chairs were set up for the audience members. Legislative staffers stood by the roped off area that was marked “Legislators Only.”
Buddy Whitt, a staff member for Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, gave quick remarks about the decorum for a legislative session.
“During that time, the gallery is requested to remain silent, not to flash signs, not to picket, not to yell. Definitely not jump over the barrier and take over a legislator’s seat. That’s particularly frowned upon,” Whitt said.
His speech didn’t stop people from clapping, cheering and whistling as the Republican lawmakers entered the room.
Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, gave a brief statement, again saying the legislators were following the constitution.
Costello was one of five legislators present for the technical session, including: Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton; Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla; Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer; and Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake. The lawmakers met one-on-one with constituents after adjourning.
“When I can talk to them directly, I feel really connected to my representatives. To meet them face-to-face on the road system is fantastic. It feels like a luxury,” said Tiana Thomas of Wasilla who was there to support a full PFD.
Annette Owens of Palmer said she had a thoughtful conversation with Costello and voiced her opposition to the education funding cuts and her frustration with the discord between the lawmakers.
“We’re Alaskans, this shouldn’t be happening. Alaska didn’t used to be 'party over people.' It’s just become that way recently,” Owens said.
Melissa Gudobba of Wasilla said she supported the cuts to the university and other funding items Dunleavy vetoed.
“I’m just tired of fearmongering. I’m tired of them saying that people are going to die in the streets because we stood up for our Permanent Fund [dividend] and we backed our legislators to cut spending that is being wasted,” Gudobba said.
Costello said the legislators who didn’t go to Juneau are working on a proposal to provide a solution to get all 60 senators and representatives into the same room to discuss the capital budget and PFD payout.
“I think moving forward, we need to be working together. Alaskans are frustrated by what they’re seeing. Whether they understand what it means to support a constitutional call or not, I think they want us all together and so we’ll be working on that,” Costello said.
Costello did not give a set timeline for completing the proposal but said it likely wouldn’t be before the veto deadline looming on Friday.
Dunleavy supporters: This is what he was elected to do
While some Alaskans attended rallies to show their displeasure over the governor's budget cuts, others have voiced their support for his decision.
"I am definitely for the governor's cuts," Christine Hill, a local business owner, said. "We have to have accountability. Unfortunately, the Republicans and the Democrats have been spending more money than they should have been to try and make everybody happy and get re-elected and we have to pay the piper now, it's time."
Those who stand with the governor say he is doing exactly what he was elected to do: balance the budget.
Some small business owners feel the state budget is a matter of what Alaskans really want and want to pay for, including Dalton Stokes, Eric Schmidt and Joe Davidson.
"When things get cut in my world, I gotta figure out a better way to do it," Stokes said. "A more efficient way."
"It's nothing that should be unusual," Schmidt said. "It's just the way state government should run. You have a certain amount of money, you get to spend what you have. You don't get to spend more than what you have."
"You have to prioritize as far as what you're willing to pay for and can pay for," Davidson said. "If you don't have it, I'm not sure what you want the gentleman to do. People don't want to have a sales tax, or an income tax and they certainly don't want to give up any of their dividend, so I'm not quite sure what you'd have him do."
They said no matter what happens, the state's divided legislators must find common ground and compromise.
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