Gov. Sarah Palin is back at war with state lawmakers after vetoing their acceptance of federal stimulus money for energy cost relief.
State legislators and U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, immediately criticized Palin for turning down the $28.6 million. Legislators, who had voted overwhelmingly to take the money, said it will just go to other states to spend while Alaska could have funded weatherization work and renewable energy projects. They said no other state has rejected it.
Palin announced her decision Thursday while signing the state budgets into law. The governor made few other spending vetoes, in contrast with previous years, and accepted the rest of the $930 million in stimulus money that Alaska is eligible for.
Palin said accepting the energy stimulus money would have required the state to follow a federal demand and "entice" local communities to adopt building codes.
"There isn't a lot of support for the federal government to coerce Alaska communities to adopt building codes, but lawmakers can always exercise checks and balances by overriding my veto," the governor said in a written statement.
Anchorage Republican Rep. Mike Hawker said Palin is wrong about the building codes, a statement that was quickly echoed by other state legislators from both parties.
"We've researched this thoroughly, and the governor's folks now have received a letter from the (U.S. Department of Energy) basically saying that you don't have to come up with all these building codes," said Hawker, a budget leader in the House.
Hawker said he believes Palin "had to do something to save face." The governor had initially balked at taking nearly a third of the available stimulus money -- calling it an "unsustainable, debt ridden package of funds" -- before agreeing to take all but 3 percent of it after the Legislature rejected her concerns.
Begich sent out a statement Thursday within an hour after news stories of the veto appeared vigorously objecting to Palin's decision to leave the energy money on the table. Begich said Palin's "notion about some onerous federal mandate seems to be little more than a political red herring targeted at an agenda other than Alaska's."
"With Alaskans facing the highest energy prices in the nation, it's disappointing that our governor is turning thumbs down on federal funding that could help our families and communities reduce their energy bills," Begich said.
Palin had no press conference or other public event to speak to the decision but her budget director, Karen Rehfeld, took media questions in a teleconference. Reporters asked her about the argument the building code isn't really required.
"The way I would respond to that is it's clear that the governor would still need to provide assurances to the U.S. Department of Energy that she would actively promote and work with communities to adopt codes," Rehfeld said.
She said Palin won't do that "because she feels strongly that is a local government decision."
Accepting the money would require states to prepare a plan for how they would meet energy efficiency standards for 90 percent of new and renovated commercial and residential square footage by 2017. Larry Persily, the Legislature's main staffer on the stimulus issue, said the U.S. Department of Energy told him it could be "pretty much a general plan to promote energy efficiency" and there would be no government workers with tape measures out policing the standards.
Persily said Alaska could likely qualify through the existing local energy standards in Anchorage, Fairbanks and other urban areas. That is how Missouri qualified for its energy money, rather than promising to impose a statewide code.
Rehfeld, when asked about that, responded that Palin would be required to promise to work for many years to advocate for local communities to adopt a building code.
"And again, she believes that's something that should be done locally," Rehfeld said.
A U.S. Department of Energy official told Palin chief of staff Mike Nizich in a letter last week that the requirements for the money can be met "if the governor takes action, within the extent of his or her authority, to promote the actions."
"In this context the State of Missouri's commitment ... to 'work with communities to create model energy efficiency standards that, if local units of government choose to implement, should reduce energy costs for Missourians,' satisfies the requirements," the department said in its letter to Nizich.
Palin's written statement announcing her decision to reject the money declared that "Alaskans and our communities have a long history of independence and opposing many mandates from Washington, D.C. This principle of maximum self-government for local communities is also set out in our constitution."
HANDFUL OF OTHER VETOES
The state House Democratic minority sent out its own statement arguing that Palin's concerns are unfounded and that every other state is requesting the money. The co-chairs of the House Special Committee on Energy said the same.
"This issue has been researched thoroughly by legislative staff and we couldn't find one string attached to those funds," said one of the co-chairs, Anchorage Republican Rep. Charisse Millett. "The governor wants the state to have 50 percent of its power generated from renewable sources by 2025. Her decision takes us a step further away from that goal."
A vote of three-quarters of the state House and Senate would be needed to override her veto.
The Legislature isn't in session until January, and it's not clear the federal government will wait. Also, Palin could refuse to apply for the funds even if there is an override.
Palin made a handful of other vetoes on Thursday, including almost half the nearly $10 million appropriated to remodel the Boney Courthouse in Anchorage.
She also vetoed four Southeast projects that were to be funded with about $5 million from the state's cruise ship tax. All the vetoed cruise tax projects are in the district of Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman, who has been critical of Palin.
Stedman didn't try to claim it was personal. But he said it was "kind of odd" Palin vetoed a Sitka sidewalk widening project that she herself had requested.
Palin's budget chief, Rehfeld, told reporters on Thursday that "Ketchikan and Sitka had some other projects in the budget and we feel that these ones can wait."
Acting Anchorage Mayor Matt Claman sent out a statement to the press in which he lauded the governor for not vetoing any projects requested by his municipality.
Palin's written statement to the press said she was vetoing a total of $80 million. But that includes the $28.6 in energy stimulus money as well as $35 million that was really just a transfer between two accounts within the state budget.