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Alaska Legislature

Alaska legislators are deeply split on Dunleavy’s budget vetoes, but getting votes to override will be difficult

JUNEAU — A day after Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced $444 million in budget vetoes, calls for the Alaska Legislature to override the cuts continued to mount, with the Alaska Federation of Natives, several municipalities, health care organizations and multiple labor unions, among others, joining the push.

Answering those calls will be difficult for the 60-member Legislature. According to the Alaska Constitution, 45 votes are needed to override a governor’s vetoes, and several key lawmakers said in interviews Friday and Saturday that they stand by the governor’s decision.

“I think it’s the only way to make a change in the way we approach solving our problems within the state,” said Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski.

Others held out hope for veto overrides. Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, said she was “cautiously optimistic” that lawmakers can find 45 votes to override the governor.

"I think the cuts are so dramatic that it’s a pretty extreme position to say that (they) should happen,” she said.

Overriding a budget veto would also be an extreme action, at least by legislative standards: It’s only happened once in the past quarter-century. In that case, lawmakers accepted $28 million in federal energy stimulus over the objections of already-departed former Gov. Sarah Palin.

Announcing this year’s vetoes in Juneau on Friday, Dunleavy said they’re necessary to start a process that balances the state budget without increasing taxes, spending from savings or cutting the Permanent Fund dividend.

“In prior years, there were attempts at using the PFD. The people of Alaska rejected that,” said the governor, referring to past reductions of the dividend in order to reduce the deficit.

“(There were) attempts at multiple kinds of taxes. The Legislature rejected that. So we ran on a platform of trying to close this budget (gap). We’re focused on doing that. We’re using an approach in which we are reducing the size of government,” he said.

In the Alaska House of Representatives, the 15-member House Republican minority has sided with the governor on the issue of the Permanent Fund dividend and the location of the upcoming July 8 special session. In the Alaska Senate, six Republican members of the Senate majority have done the same.

The actions of that bloc of 21 will likely determine whether or not the governor’s vetoes are upheld.

“We have 15 Republicans in the House minority and six Republicans in the Senate majority who have been pretty staunch,” said Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla.

If lawmakers vote on vetoes individually rather than collectively, the cohesion of the bloc could wax or wane, but Shower doesn’t think the result will change.

“While groups change … I think you’re going to have a pretty hard time finding more than five people to peel off on any one issue,” he said.

“It sounds like, in our little group in the Senate, it’s looking pretty good,” said Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer.

The bloc may also represent a floor for the governor’s support, rather than a ceiling.

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, isn’t part of the bloc. He differs from the governor on the issue of the dividend but said by phone, “I’m going to support a lot of what the governor has done, I’ll say that.”

He said he opposes the vetoes to the university system and the Village Public Safety Officer program.

Among members of the House Republican minority, Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, said, “I don’t see the 15 of us overriding any vetoes at this point.”

Carpenter said he believes many members of the House Republican minority feel sidelined by the coalition House majority, which makes them less likely to support an override.

“I think we would have a higher risk of people defecting from that group if the majority had accorded us and treated us better the entire year. … That has not happened. We have been marginalized from the very beginning, and that has consequences. The relationships are not there,” he said. “We 15, or 21, are supporting the governor in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the direction the state government is headed.”

In a statement Friday, the 24-member coalition House majority called the governor’s vetoes “an imminent threat to our economy and to all Alaskans.”

The six-member Senate Democratic minority was even sharper in its dissent. Each member offered comments against the governor’s approach.

"Gov. Dunleavy is continuing his war on seniors by completely defunding the Senior Benefits program that thousands of fixed low-income seniors use to buy groceries, medicine, and energy,” Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage, said in a prepared statement.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, criticized the governor for cutting services without also requiring more money from oil and gas drillers.

“Governor Dunleavy has cut resources for kids, seniors, and the most vulnerable Alaskans, but leaves unscathed the $1.2 billion in oil tax credits to the wealthiest corporations in the world,” he said.

Combined, that group of 30 lawmakers represents half the Alaska Legislature, and some members of the Alaska Senate majority have similar views.

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said, "This is, across the board, just devastating to so many people — to the poor, to the elderly, to our students. ... It just affects so many.”

Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage, said she is “not a fan of the vetoes.”

Von Imhof, who is secretary and treasurer of the Rasmuson Foundation, worries that with state services cut, private charities and corporations will be asked to fill a gap that is too big for them.

By phone, she mused about what might happen next winter if Anchorage’s Brother Francis Shelter lacks the means to shelter everyone who needs protection from the cold.

“If people don’t have a home, are they going to start drinking more, doing drugs more?” she asked. “Are people going to die when it gets cold? I think those are the kind of impacts we need to consider.”

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