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Education bill bounced back to committee after votes fail to materialize

Lisa Demer

JUNEAU -- An effort by conservatives to dramatically restructure Alaska's educational system through a constitutional amendment collapsed Wednesday when key Republican senators said they didn't have the votes. The measure was pulled from the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon.

At issue is Senate Joint Resolution 9, which would allow public money to be spent on private schooling including religious schools.

Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla and the prime sponsor, had pushed for the measure to get a vote before the full Senate even amid significant doubts of support. He said he thought enough votes would materialize and isn't giving up.

During Wednesday's floor session, Sen. John Coghill, a Republican from Fairbanks and the majority leader, asked for the measure to be returned to the Rules Committee at the request of Dunleavy.

"We always tell the bill sponsor that if they get the votes, there's always opportunity," Sen. Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican who chairs the Rules Committee, said in an interview. That committee is where legislation sits awaiting action by the full Senate.

As a constitutional amendment, the proposal needed 14 votes to pass -- two-thirds of the 20 senators. Eight senators -- including three members of the GOP-led majority caucus -- said in recent interviews they were firm "no" votes.

On Wednesday, the Senate leadership postponed a scheduled floor session with the constitutional amendment on the agenda. Instead, they huddled with Dunleavy in Senate President Charlie Huggins' office. Besides Huggins and Dunleavy, the others were McGuire, Coghill and Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican and co-chairman of the Finance Committee. The group includes four of the measure's seven co-sponsors.

"The subject of the constitutional amendment is over for today," McGuire said after emerging.

But it's not completely dead, Dunleavy said. He said he asked for the measure to return to the Rules Committee while he continues to research constitutional and legal issues. He said he is awaiting information that he expected to arrive a day or two ago. He hopes it will sway senators and "seal the deal," he said.

He described the research as "legal in nature" but said it wasn't coming from the Legislature's legal arm. He said he would explain the information more completely once he receives and evaluates it.

"I am confident that SJR 9 will still see the floor here within the near future," Dunleavy said to reporters in his office. "And what does that mean? I have got to take a look at this stuff when it gets in here and have some conversations with some folks."

Dunleavy said he has no doubt that a majority of both Senate and House members support the constitutional change, but that two-thirds support is a high bar.

If the measure passed both the House and the Senate, it would go before Alaska voters in the November general election, where a simple majority would be enough to pass it.

Backers said they want to give parents and students more choice, especially those who cannot afford private schools. But opponents said the measure would drain money from already squeezed public schools, and they worried it would devastate Alaska's educational system.

Senate leaders late Friday surprised even some members of their own caucus when they scheduled the measure for a vote before the full Senate.

In recent days, all five Democrats in the Senate minority caucus said they opposed the measure, as did three members of the GOP-led majority organization: Republicans Gary Stevens of Kodiak, Click Bishop of Fairbanks and Democrat Dennis Egan of Juneau. Two others, Democrat Donny Olson of Golovin and Bert Stedman of Sitka said they were undecided.

While Democrats raised concerns about the potential cost of a state-funded school voucher program for private schools, Dunleavy said that was premature because the constitutional amendment didn't create a voucher program or anything else. The Legislature would have to come back next year and work out the details. That worried opponents, who noted a voucher program could then be created with a simple majority.

Dunleavy, a former Mat-Su School Board president whose children go to public schools and who made a career in public education, said his interest has been largely to ensure that state dollars can legally pay for home school correspondence programs and scholarships to private schools.

Some on both sides said they were disappointed the debate and vote didn't happen.

Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage and the minority leader, said the proposal went out "not with a bang, but with a whimper."

But he acknowledged the resolution could be quickly rescheduled on the Senate calendar.

"Until we gavel out, that dangerous bill is one calendar away from appearing in front of us for a final vote," French said. Public demonstrations, emails and phone calls solidified opposition to the measure, he said. "I would encourage the public to stay extremely alert."

Earlier on Wednesday, Alaska Family Council board chairman David Bronson, the group's high profile president, Jim Minnery, and David Boyle, executive director of the Alaska Policy Forum gathered outside Huggins' office hoping for a different result.

The Alaska Family Council is a Christian social cause advocacy group, and the forum is a conservative think tank. Both organizations have been pushing the proposed amendment.

Bronson said he wanted the proposed amendment to clear the Legislature and wasn't pushing for senators to be pressured to vote publicly.

Reach Lisa Demer at or 952-3965.