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Despite swiped bill, Sen. Stevens vows to discuss school vouchers

Pat Forgey
Two men hold up a sign in front of the Alaska Legislature building in downtown Anchorage on Jan. 19, 2013, during an impromptu NEA Alaska flash mob protesting recent funding cuts to education. Jake Todd

Returning to Juneau after a controversial school voucher measure was snatched from the Education Committee he chairs while he was out of state, Sen. Gary Stevens said his committee will thoroughly discuss the issue, even if it no longer has the bill.

In a humorous and passionate floor speech on Tuesday, Stevens poked fun at himself for leaving to attend a Council of State Governments meeting in Lexington, Kentucky. "It appears I missed an eventful and truly fun-filled Friday," Stevens said.

And he said he learned a lesson: "Never, never, never leave town."

Banned since statehood

While Stevens was away, Senate President Charlie Huggins took Senate Joint Resolution 9, which would send a constitutional amendment ballot question to voters allowing Alaska religious and private schools to get public school money. That's been banned since statehood by the Alaska Constitution.

Stevens said that while he'd likely vote against such a measure at the polls, he'd never use his clout as chairman to kill a bill in committee by holding it indefinitely. "I have never held a bill in a committee I chaired because I did not like it -- or simply because I had the power as chairman to do that," he said.

Stevens acknowledged that he'd likely vote against a school voucher proposal at the polls, if it gets that far.

While Stevens was away, some Democratic senators unsuccessfully challenged Huggins' decision to move SJR9 out of Stevens' committee and into the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by voucher supporter and resolution co-sponsor Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole.

'Wayward son'

Stevens also poked fun at Coghill, drawing a laugh from him by quoting another John Coghill, the senator's father, who defended the strict separation of church and state as a delegate to the Alaska Constitutional Convention in 1955 at the University of Alaska. "As a father, I can sympathize with the senior Coghill," he said. "I know how distressing it can be to have a wayward son."

Huggins and Coghill maintained that the ballot measure was not an education measure, and would not be one unless it reached the polls. Stevens disputed that and said vouchers are a legitimate concern of the Education Committee.

"There is not a more momentous education issue that I have encountered in my 13 years in the Legislature," he said.

Despite not having the resolution to consider, Stevens said his committee would consider the issue of school vouchers, and call witnesses to testify, such as the Commissioner of Education and Early Development, school leaders, as well as other experts. "I intend to jump into this issue with both feet," he said.

Huggins, too, took a conciliatory approach. He said that he was willing to consider referring the voucher measure to the Education Committee later in the session if substantial education issues remain after the Judiciary Committee hearings.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com