In a demonstration of how politics have changed in Juneau since the last election, Senate leaders last week declared that a proposed constitutional amendment that would completely restructure public education in Alaska should bypass the Senate Education Committee.
"In talking to multiple people, quite frankly it's a legal issue, not an education issue," Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, said in an interview Saturday.
The proposed amendment, to allow public funds to be spent on private and religious school education, is high on the social issues agenda of the Republicans who now control both the Senate and House. The measure would have to pass both the House and the Senate by a two-thirds majority each, then would go before the Alaska voters in the 2014 general election.
In redirecting the measure from the Senate Education Committee to the Judiciary Committee, Huggins placed it before a chairman who is co-sponsoring the resolution and taking it from a chairman who would likely vote against the amendment if it appears on the ballot.
The committee switch came abruptly in the Friday morning Senate session. The absent Education Committee chairman, Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, said he was stunned, as were Senate Democrats.
"I did not know about it and was never contacted," Stevens said Saturday from Lexington, Ky., where he is attending a meeting of the Council of State Governments. Stevens is the current chairman of the national organization. He left Juneau on Wednesday and returns Sunday.
"To say that is not education is pretty bizarre to me," said Stevens, a retired University of Alaska Anchorage history professor. "When I look to my 15 years in the Legislature, there's been no bill that affects education more than this one."
Stevens was the previous Senate president, when a bipartisan coalition governed the upper body. In his two years in that post, he said, if he ever removed a bill from a committee it was always with the knowledge and concurrence of the chairman.
The proposed constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 9, was introduced Wednesday by freshman Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, and initially assigned by Huggins to both Education and Judiciary. A similar measure has been introduced in the House.
Backers call it school choice and say competition between public and private schools would improve education for everyone. Opponents say it would starve public education, where schools are available to everyone, and instead direct public funds to corporate or religious entities.
Huggins said he learned the resolution would "pick up a fiscal note" -- a statement of its costs to the state treasury. That would normally require an additional stop at the Finance Committee. From his perch at the front of the Senate, Huggins said he was removing the Education Committee referral.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski , D-Anchorage, objected. "This has tremendous implications," he said from the floor.
One of the five members of the Senate Democratic caucus, Wielechowski's objection, and that another Democrat, Sen. Berta Gardner, also from Anchorage, forced a vote.
Under the internal rules of the Republican-led caucus, all members are required to vote as a bloc on procedural matters, but one member, Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, crossed over and voted with the minority. It didn't matter -- the objection failed, 11-4.
"I've never seen a bill pulled out of a committee on the floor like that," Wielechowski said Saturday. "I don't know how much we are going to talk about education at this point. I guess we're just going to talk about whether we want to change the Constitution."
Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Saturday that while the measure affects education, it is primarily a legal matter -- at least before the amendment is adopted.
"Unless you change the Constitution, you can't even have the public policy discussion," he said.
Alaska's Constitution, which took effect with statehood in 1959, says, "No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution." That language tracks closely with the Blaine Amendment, a failed U.S. Constitutional amendment proposed in 1875. While Congress never adopted it, most states have similar language in their constitutions.
Coghill, a sponsor of the resolution, said it's been his experience that whenever a legislator proposes a school voucher program or some other method of using public funds for private or religious education, the matter gets bogged down in the Legislature's education committees.
"Do you want to allow public money to go into other choices of education? I don't think that they can settle that in the Education Committee because it becomes a legal question, not necessarily an education question," Coghill said.
But, he added, if education policy arises during hearings in the Judiciary Committee, he wouldn't object to an additional referral to Education. As it is, Huggins' switch on Friday "would not have been my first choice."
Stevens said a stop for the resolution in the Education Committee would ensure its impacts on public education would get heard.
"We have an obligation to make sure that the public feels that we have thoroughly vetted it," he said. Stevens said he wouldn't hold the bill because he believes the public should be able to vote. As he understands the issue now, he would vote against the amendment in the voting booth, he said.
Ron Fuhrer, president of the statewide teachers' union, the National Education Association-Alaska, which represents 13,000 teachers and support-staff members, said the resolution was being maneuvered by Huggins to take it away from "a very important committee."
"Clearly this deals with education and it's just stunning that the Senate president decided the Education Committee wouldn't even hear the bill," Fuhrer said in an interview Saturday afternoon.
By RICHARD MAUER and LISA DEMER
Anchorage Daily News