Lawmakers muster votes to override governor

STIMULUS: Palin makes Alaska the sole state to reject energy cost relief.

June 4, 2009 

Legislative leaders say they appear to have enough votes to override Gov. Sarah Palin's veto of $28.6 million in federal stimulus money for energy cost relief. Alaska is the only state to have rejected these funds, and that's not sitting well.

"I would be surprised if we didn't override her," North Pole Republican Rep. John Coghill said Thursday.

Rep. Mike Hawker, another member of the legislative leadership, said that's his count too.

"This is just one of those cases where there is such a profound difference of opinion between the legislative branch of government and the executive branch," the Anchorage Republican said. "We could have one of those rare and difficult instances where we are actually able to override a governor's veto of an appropriation item."

It's so rare and difficult because it requires a 75 percent vote of the Legislature in joint session. But there's little support among lawmakers for Palin on this, and the debate is more about whether she could trump a veto override and manage to block the money.

Palin didn't always get along with the Legislature during her first two years in office, but her opponents rarely were able to muster enough support to seriously stand in the way of what she wanted. That's changed in the past year, with the April rejection of her appointment of Wayne Anthony Ross for attorney general -- the first time in state history a head of a state agency has failed to be confirmed by the Legislature -- and now the overwhelming opposition to her stand against the stimulus money.

Even members of the all-Republican Senate minority, Palin's closet allies, are thinking about going against her. "I think those (energy) stimulus funds could do more for the state of Alaska than anything else we had the opportunity to accept," said Kenai Sen. Tom Wagoner.

Senate President Gary Stevens, who leads the bipartisan majority, agreed it looks as if there are enough votes for the override. But he's hesitant to pull the trigger, saying Palin would apparently end up with the final say on the money regardless.

"I'm not sure there's a point in our overriding the governor's veto because the governor still has the option of not applying for the money," the Kodiak Republican said.

Stevens said he doesn't think it's worth it to call a special session for a veto override. Legislators are also busy with their regular lives during the summer, and getting them to agree to a special session could be a problem. That means any override vote likely wouldn't happen until the next regular session starts in January, and it's not clear the federal government will wait that long.

Alaska legislative leaders sent a letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu this week asking if he would keep the money on the table until January. They also asked if the state might be able to get the money if the Legislature overrides Palin's veto and she still refuses to apply for the funds.

Palin isn't saying what she would do if the Legislature overrides her veto. The Republican governor said through her spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, on Thursday that "it's premature to discuss what may or may not happen."

Palin earlier said she vetoed the money because taking it would require her to promote the adoption of energy efficiency codes throughout the state. That should be a local decision, she argues, not a dictate from the federal government.

But legislators of both parties counter that Palin is overstating the requirements for taking the money, and that Alaska likely already qualifies. The 14 members of the Democratic minority in the state House sent a letter this week saying they would vote in favor of an override.

"We believe your decision is based on erroneous information and fails to serve Alaskan families and communities," said the Democrats' letter.

Juneau Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula, the minority leader, said "of all the stimulus dollars available to us, these may actually be the most important." Anchorage Democratic Rep. Harry Crawford called Palin's logic on the money "flat wrong."

Legislators said the money could go for uses such as weatherization and renewable energy projects.

Anchorage Republican Sen. Lesil McGuire said legislators should override the veto even if Palin continues to refuse to ask the federal government for the money. She said Alaskans want their representatives to stand up to Palin on this.

"We are the people responsible for carrying out their will and allowing their voices to be heard. So I think there is merit in overturning the veto and having the discussion with (Energy Secretary) Chu to see if there is still a chance."


Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.

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