JUNEAU — If Alaska state legislators need a second special session to avert a government shutdown, Gov. Mike Dunleavy is prepared to propose they meet at Wasilla Middle School.
The leaders of the House and Senate aren’t fans of the idea, saying that timing, cost, complexity and accessibility all work against the proposal.
“Our caucus does not support a special session in Wasilla,” House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said in an interview Wednesday.
“When I think of that proposal, I see dollar signs. It will be exceedingly expensive,” Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said in a separate interview.
Under the constitution and state law, the governor can call lawmakers into special session at a particular place, but if they don’t agree, they can simply gavel the session closed, then resume work elsewhere.
“The governor cannot force the Legislature to go anywhere for perhaps more than 45 minutes,” said the governor’s press secretary, Matt Shuckerow.
With less than four weeks remaining until a statewide government shutdown, state lawmakers and the governor remain embroiled in a deadlock over the amount of this year’s Permanent Fund dividend. Without agreement on the dividend, lawmakers are unable to advance the state’s operating budget.
The budget must be approved by House, Senate and the governor before July 1 in order to avoid a government shutdown. If the budget is not approved by Friday, June 14, thousands of state workers will receive notices warning them that they will be fired or furloughed in the event of a shutdown.
The Legislature is meeting in special session to avoid that shutdown, but the Alaska Constitution limits special sessions to 30 days, and the first special session will expire at the end of the day June 14. Without a budget, a second special session will be needed to continue work, and Dunleavy has repeatedly said he would like that special session to take place in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
The governor’s office recently delivered a proposal along those lines. It begins in part, “An ideal venue for the Legislature is Wasilla Middle School.”
The middle school has the space and utilities to accommodate the Legislature, the proposal states, and the space would be offered for free.
Shuckerow said the governor is interested in having a special session on the state’s road system to make it more accessible to Alaskans.
“(Wasilla) Middle School has been identified as a prime site that we’re considering,” Shuckerow said.
Shuckerow said a team from the governor’s office has been scouting possible locations at least since the current special session began and has been talking with city and borough officials.
An official with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District said by phone Wednesday that the governor’s office and Wasilla Mayor Bert Cottle approached the school district about possible locations. The district’s superintendent suggested the middle school.
“These are good schools,” Shuckerow said. “If they’re acceptable for our students, our middle school students, then they’re more than acceptable for the Legislature.”
Legislative officials believe it will take weeks to make the school ready for the Legislature.
“Usually it’s 30 days, but the minimum would be two weeks, and that’s really pushing it,” said Jessica Geary, director of the nonpartisan Legislative Affairs Agency.
The agency, housed principally in a building adjacent to the Capitol, provides the administration that allows the Legislature to function each year. Geary, as its director, follows the lead of the House speaker and the Senate president. The governor might want lawmakers in the Mat-Su, but the Legislative Affairs Agency doesn’t begin planning until lawmakers say so.
“When they tell us, that’s when we would start,” she said.
So far, that hasn’t happened. The Legislative Affairs Agency didn’t coordinate with the governor’s scouting team, and after it received the proposal from the governor’s office, it responded with six pages of questions and concerns.
Among them were technical questions about internet access, office space and copiers, as well as basic unanswered issues, such as where lawmakers would have their offices.
One question: “Are chairs/desks/furniture adult-sized?”
Shuckerow said questions like these can be resolved and are merely excuses by the Legislature to avoid a move.
“They’ve made every excuse imaginable, but the reality is (Wasilla) Middle School is a more than adequate location,” Shuckerow said.
“I trust my team, and they said it was not adequate,” she said.
Edgmon said he believes a special session at the middle school could actually be less accessible because Gavel Alaska, the Legislature’s TV broadcast, is available only in Juneau. (It’s principally funded by the City and Borough of Juneau.)
“That to me is a critical component: keeping the hearings in a place where we can have gavel to gavel coverage,” he said.
He pointed out that when the Legislature held a special session in Anchorage in 2015, it did not see any more public involvement than a Juneau special session.
“I certainly appreciate the governor’s heart to make sure that legislative sessions are accessible to the people,” Giessel said. “At the same time, we have public testimony routinely here, and it’s pretty robust turnout. I think that Alaskans do have some pretty significant access.”