JUNEAU — Two weeks before an anticipated special session in Wasilla, the leaders of the Alaska Legislature say they are rejecting Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s plans in favor of meetings in Juneau and Anchorage.
In an emailed announcement Monday afternoon, Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, and Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said, “The Alaska Legislature announced today it will convene in Juneau on July 8th for the 2nd special session, with the majority of meetings to be held in Anchorage.”
While lawmakers lack the votes to change the special session agenda or timing laid out by the governor in a June 13 proclamation, the leaders of the House and Senate believe they can change the location away from Wasilla Middle School.
The legality of such a decision is a significant question.
“Really, a lot of this is gray area. It hasn’t been tested,” Edgmon said by phone.
Article II, Section 9 of the state constitution says, “Special sessions may be called by the governor or by vote of two-thirds of the legislators.”
State law implementing that section says in part, “The legislature may call itself into special session if two-thirds of the membership responds in the affirmative to a poll conducted by the presiding officer of each house.”
Currently, fewer than 40 of the Legislature’s 60 members support a change to the governor’s agenda. All 15 members of the Alaska House Republican minority support it, as do at least six of the 10 members of the Senate who voted in favor of a traditional Permanent Fund dividend this year.
State law also says the governor can designate a location for the special session. The constitution does not grant the governor that power, and Edgmon said the doctrine of separation of powers trumps state law in this case.
“The Legislature is exercising its right to the location,” Edgmon said by phone.
“Although we are one vote short of the 40-vote threshold to call ourselves into our own special session agenda, the majority of legislators in both bodies considers it our right to determine the location and venue best equipped to conduct business on the Governor’s special session call, while providing the most access to as many Alaskans possible,” Edgmon and Giessel said in their joint statement.
The decision to keep the agenda and timing but not the location is making the governor and some lawmakers unhappy.
“I feel like the Legislative leadership is pulling an end run to try to move the venue when they don’t have the votes,” said Rep. Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, R-Wasilla and co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s nine-member Matanuska-Susitna delegation.
Hours before the statement from Edgmon and Giessel, the delegation had issued a press release welcoming the Legislature to the region.
“I think we probably need an independent legal opinion on this. To arbitrarily challenge the governor … I don’t know legally they can do that,” Sullivan-Leonard said.
In the Senate, Senate Majority Leader Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, is among the lawmakers in favor of a Wasilla session. She echoed Sullivan-Leonard’s concerns about legality and added, “Frankly, we have a trust problem with the public already, and I think we should follow the law.”
The governor came within a step of calling the House and Senate leadership criminal.
“The Senate President and Speaker of the House admit they lack the votes to change the venue or call a special session of their own, yet they are committed to thwarting the law and the voice of the Alaskan people. This is all part of why Alaskans have lost trust in their lawmakers. How can we with a straight face expect people to follow the law when the legislative leadership ignores, breaks, and skirts the law at every turn?” he wrote in a prepared statement.
The issue of the Permanent Fund dividend is the sole item on the special session agenda envisioned by the governor and the session envisioned by the House and Senate leaders.
The governor supports a dividend paid using the traditional formula in state law. The Legislature’s leaders — despite dissent from many of their members — do not.
According to revenue projections for the fiscal year that begins July 1, the state does not have enough revenue to pay both a traditional dividend and spending at levels proposed by the Legislature. (The governor may cut the budget via the veto process, and a final decision is pending.)
With tax increases off the table and sufficient budget vetoes unlikely, that means lawmakers and the governor must spend from savings in order to pay the traditional dividend. A majority of the House is opposed to spending from savings for the traditional dividend, as is half the Senate. The governor supports it, however, and he chose Wasilla, a hotbed of support for the traditional dividend.