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Alaska Legislature

Senate president: ‘No question’ lawmakers meeting in Juneau

Wasilla Middle School in preparation for a special session of the Alaska Legislature. Gov. Mike Dunleavy has called the session for Wasilla, starting Monday, but legislative leaders say they intend to meet at the state Capitol in Juneau. (Photo courtesy Matanuska-Susitna School District)

JUNEAU — The president of the Alaska Senate said Friday there is “no question” lawmakers will convene an upcoming special session in Juneau, pushing back against Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his attorney general, who argued that Dunleavy can call them into special session anywhere he wants, including the side of a road.

Dunleavy, a Republican, called on lawmakers to meet starting Monday in Wasilla, where he is from, saying a change in venue was needed after lawmakers failed to finish their work in the capital city of Juneau over five drawn-out months.

An email sent to a Dunleavy spokesman seeking comment wasn't immediately returned.

Jessica Geary, executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency, said the agency has made no preparations at Wasilla Middle School, Dunleavy's recommended venue, and instead followed the direction of legislative leadership.

Senate President Giessel, an Anchorage Republican, and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham independent, previously announced plans for lawmakers to meet in Juneau and hold committee hearings in Anchorage, citing in part the ability to use facilities designed for legislative proceedings.

Giessel said Friday she believes the Legislature is on solid footing with that plan, despite legal questions raised by Attorney General Kevin Clarkson.

Clarkson recently told reporters the state constitution does not give the Legislature power to determine where a special session called by the governor will occur and said state law allows a governor to call a special session anywhere.

"He could have picked Kotzebue or Bethel or Huslia or Mile 135 of the Sterling Highway, literally anywhere in the state," Clarkson said, ticking off rural or remote locations.

Senate Finance Committee Co-chairman Sen. Bert Stedman scoffed at that. “We’re not running a comedy show here, or reality TV,” the Sitka Republican said. Juneau is the seat of government, and the legislature is a separate but equal branch of government, he said.

Giessel said she could not say for certain if any of her members would go to Wasilla. "I am certain, however, that I have 14 members that will be appearing in Juneau for the session there," she said. The Senate has 20 members.

The special session's sole agenda item is a spending bill authorizing this year's payout to residents from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a nest-egg fund seeded with oil money and grown through investments. Annual dividends traditionally have been paid with fund earnings, which lawmakers also began using last year to help pay government expenses amid an ongoing budget deficit, creating tension.

Giessel said she would like to reach an agreement that would allow lawmakers to address other remaining work. Still unresolved, for example, is the state's infrastructure budget, the capital budget.

Some legislators also are interested in revisiting the dividend formula, seeing the existing calculation as unsustainable. The formula has not been followed the last three years, resulting in reduced check sizes. Dunleavy, who took office in December, campaigned on paying a full dividend, which would cost about $1.9 billion and result in checks around $3,000 this year.

Once the Legislature convenes, it will have five days to decide whether to override any of Dunleavy's vetoes to the state operating budget.

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen has described the $130 million Dunleavy vetoed from the system's budget as devastating. Other areas affected by vetoes include health and social service, early childhood and environmental programs and public broadcasting. Forty-five of the Legislature's 60 members must agree on an override, which lawmakers say is a high bar to attain.

Democratic Rep. Adam Wool of Fairbanks, a university city, said it will be a bad day if lawmakers fail to override the university cut in particular. "I think we're at a serious turning point. If we can't do it this year, then I don't know what it says about next year," he said.

Dunleavy has said he hopes to close the budget gap next year. The state has no statewide sales or personal income tax, and no new or increased state taxes were seriously considered this year.

Dunleavy did propose tax-collection changes that would benefit the state but that some local governments said would hurt them. Those failed to gain traction with lawmakers.