ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Minority members of the Alaska House of Representatives and a handful of state senators on Thursday again refused to join colleagues at a special session in Juneau, thwarting efforts to overturn budget vetoes by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
The deadline for overturning vetoes, which critics say could devastate the Alaska economy, is Friday night.
More than a third of the 60-member Legislature, including 16 members of the House Minority and five state senators, missed Thursday’s joint session.
Dunleavy called for the special session to be in Wasilla, his hometown and the home of his conservative base. Senate and House leaders, citing security, access and expense, decided to instead to meet at the Capitol in Juneau.
The missing lawmakers have been gathering at a makeshift legislative hall in the gymnasium of a Wasilla middle school. They say the Juneau session is an illegal gathering and they will not attend.
In anguished floor speeches, lawmakers warned of harm to vulnerable Alaskans and severe damage to the state economy if vetoes were not overturned.
“Please join us,” said Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, a 20-year legislative veteran and the son of an author of the Alaska Constitution. “The people of Alaska need your voice. We can’t do it without you.”
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, the co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, called his missing colleagues “dissidents” who were not fulfilling their sworn duty.
The absent lawmakers, he said, had thwarted his right to argue in favour of money to expand a Ketchikan dock. The dock expansion is needed for Ketchikan to home-port a federal hydrographic survey vessel.
“I want my constitutional rights back,” he said.
Dunleavy, a first-term Republican who took office in December, vetoed more than $400 million from the state operating budget.
About one-third of his vetoes fell on the University of Alaska, which saw its state funding cut by 41%. University of Alaska officials say the system will lose $135 million on top of a $51 million cut over the past six years, which resulted in the loss of 1,200 faculty and staff members and 50 academic and degree programs.
Officials warned as many as 2,000 more staff and faculty would be lost, including 700 at UA Anchorage, along with 40 degree programs.
Coghill said the Fairbanks-area economy has three pillars: the University of Alaska, the military and a combination of tourism and mining. When Defence Department officials in 2005 prepared to shutter Eielson Air Force Base, Fairbanks officials argued persuasively that the University of Alaska offered excellent education opportunities for military personnel and their families, Coghill said.
The university supplies training that supports the others pillars of the economy, he said.
“One-third of my economy is going to drag the rest of the community with it,” Coghill said.
Dunleavy also vetoed money for low-income senior citizens, public broadcasting, the state arts council, drug rehabilitation and battered women’s shelters.
He reduced spending for Medicaid, reimbursement to communities for school construction, the Civil Air Patrol, and ocean monitors on cruise ships.
Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage, on Wednesday accused missing colleagues of using the session location to duck the veto override vote.
“It’s a red herring to mask the real issues of what we are facing here today,” she said.
Dunleavy’s vetoes, she said, will “bite us hard in the future” when patients who lost Medicaid show up in emergency rooms, homeless people turned away from shelters commit crimes, drug addicts lose treatment and bright young minds leave Alaska for opportunities elsewhere.
Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, also called the location dispute an excuse to avoid a courageous decision.
“It’s difficult to stand up to your party,” she said. “It’s difficult to stand up to your governor. But the cost to the state of Alaska is huge.”
Alaskans pay no state income or sales tax and receive annual checks from earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund, a savings account created with oil wealth and grown over decades by investment earnings. Since 1996, the checks have exceeded $1,000 all but four years.
Dunleavy has called for a dividend check of $3,000 and has refused to consider new taxes. He said last week that he based the budget vetoes on a desire to provide basic services “while understanding our fiscal constraints.”
Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, said the past two days were two of the hardest of his life.
“I know that the things we are doing will potentially break this place,” Begich said.
Dan Joling, The Associated Press