JUNEAU — In a scene akin to something from a troubled foreign democracy or the American Civil War, members of a deeply divided Alaska Legislature will gather Monday in Wasilla and Juneau, each group claiming that its location is the rightful place for the latest special session of the Legislature.
“There hasn’t been anything happen like this since like the Civil War, since West Virginia became a state. This is totally unprecedented and strange,” said House Minority Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, who says he expects to be present in Wasilla on Monday.
With no more than 39 legislators present in Juneau and no more than 21 present in Wasilla, the divide will preclude any immediate attempt to override $444 million in budget vetoes signed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy last month. Lawmakers have five days from the start of the session to gather the 45 votes needed to override the vetoes.
If not, the University of Alaska has warned that campuses across the state will close and the system may be forced to declare the equivalent of bankruptcy. Other organizations have warned of major consequences, including skyrocketing homelessness, the end of cash benefits to seniors and cuts to basic health care.
Talking to a Fairbanks town hall meeting on July 3, Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon said that if the governor’s vetoes stand, “We’re going to see a fundamental change in the state.”
In addition, the state’s unfinished capital budget also needs 45 votes as written. Without that vote, the state will lose out on more than $1 billion in federally supported road-construction aid, and a swath of state programs will lose funding as their accounts are automatically transferred into the state’s Constitutional Budget Reserve.
Lawmakers also have not set an amount for this year’s Permanent Fund dividend, and despite extraordinary public attention on the vetoes, it is the dividend that is driving issues in the Legislature.
“Right now, the controversy is the dividend,” Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said in a Friday interview.
Dunleavy has consistently supported a traditional Permanent Fund dividend and so has a significant minority of the 60-member Legislature. That minority bloc, spread across the House and Senate, is opposing any vote on the capital budget unless the Legislature first approves a traditional dividend worth about $3,000 per person.
The Republican House minority, which controls a quarter of the Legislature’s seats, has also tied the governor’s budget vetoes to the dividend. In a statement released after Dunleavy’s decision, Pruitt said his group would prefer to allocate additional funding in the capital budget rather than vote to overturn the governor’s decision directly.
The majority of lawmakers, including some key Republicans, oppose a traditional dividend, pointing out that paying such a dividend would — at current levels of spending — result in a deficit of almost $900 million. Covering that deficit would likely require overdrawing the Permanent Fund for at least one year, reducing its long-term value. If that pattern continues for multiple years, it could exhaust the account used to pay the dividend.
“I’ll take the political hit from those who don’t understand that if you take a full PFD today, you damn well might not have a PFD tomorrow,” Edgmon said at the Fairbanks meeting. “I’ll make the tough votes, I’ll pay the consequences, but damn it, I’m going to act in the best interests of the state.”
The House Finance Committee has already scheduled a meeting for 2 p.m. Monday in Juneau, and at that time, lawmakers in the capital city are expected to consider a proposal to pay a $1,600 dividend. If the governor’s vetoes are upheld, that amount could be paid without a deficit.
Special location, special problems
The debate over the dividend has lasted through a 121-day regular session, a first special session, and now enters a second special session. Dunleavy’s choice of Wasilla for the session has added a new complication.
Speaking to reporters last month, the governor said he chose Wasilla because it is accessible to Alaskans on the road system, allowing them to physically drive to meetings, and a change in location might break the Legislature’s deadlock.
Some lawmakers suspect ulterior motives.
“I’m going to be blunt,” wrote Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, in a column published June 28 by the Kodiak Daily Mirror and Cordova Times, “it seems the governor’s only justification for Wasilla as the location is the region’s view on the PFD.”
She referred to the governor’s stated reasons for Wasilla as “patently false.”
The governor has cited his ability under state law to set Wasilla as the location, but a majority of lawmakers is resisting that, saying the Legislature’s constitutional right to organize itself trumps state law.
“The governor called us into Wasilla, and that’s a statute. We are calling ourselves into Juneau; that’s the constitution. The constitution overrules statute,” said Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks, during a July 3 town hall meeting in his city.
After a heckler confronted him, Wool added, “People can yell whatever they want, but that’s what we hear from our lawyers, and we’ve got a lot of them."
Pruitt said he understands that perspective, but his group disagrees with that interpretation.
“We can’t be there because we’re trying to follow the law,” he said.
“At this point, it’s mostly dueling legal opinions,” he added, which means “you’re not going to see armed guards pulling people in and dragging people in.”
Alaska hasn’t seen a special session like this, and historians of American state legislatures said they can’t recall a recent example anywhere in the country.
West Virginia convened a competing Legislature when it seceded from Virginia at the start of the American Civil War, and Kansas had competing pro-slavery and pro-emancipation legislatures in the years before the war.
“I do not recall any recent episodes along these lines,” said Peverill Squire, professor of political science at the University of Missouri and author of several books on American legislative history. “There were some in the colonial era and in early American history. Many state constitutions have provisions to make it difficult for the legislature to meet anywhere other than at the usual place."
Squire referred to a clause in Missouri’s constitution along those lines.
“It does not appear that the Alaska constitution has a similar provision,” he said. "But I think it would be impossible to have the Legislature meet any other place than the Capitol in Juneau without the support of the legislative leadership and a majority of the members. Wasilla may be more convenient for many members, but meeting there would be a burden for the support staff and others that the legislature needs to run their session.”
Thus far, neither the Speaker of the House nor Senate President have ordered that support staff to Wasilla. In their absence, the city and school district have set up ranks of tables in gymnasiums at Wasilla Middle School, and pictures show bleachers rolled out to accommodate the public.
What comes next
With fewer than 21 legislators expected in Wasilla on Monday, there will not be enough to convene competing sessions of the Legislature. Only in Juneau will there be a quorum to conduct official business.
A legal response is possible. Speaking to reporters last month, Attorney General Kevin Clarkson said he has advised the governor of three options when the special session begins in Juneau:
• The governor could allow them to meet in Juneau and Anchorage;
• He could wait to see if a private citizen files suit against the Legislature;
• Or the governor could file a suit against individual lawmakers under Article III, Section 16 of the state constitution, then seek a court order compelling them to attend session in Wasilla.
Legislators in Juneau have options of their own, including a legislative rule that allows them to compel lawmakers in Wasilla to attend a session in Juneau.
Until the issue is settled, it is unlikely that the Legislature will muster 45 lawmakers in the same building, let alone 45 votes on a particular issue, said Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer.
“It’s really up to the 39 at this point. If they want the (veto) overrides badly enough, then they will join us in Southcentral, and if they don’t, it’s on them,” she said.
WHERE THEY LINE UP
While legislators could still change their plans, here’s the latest tally of where lawmakers will be on Monday:
• In Wasilla: House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage; Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski; Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla; Rep. Sharon Jackson, R-Eagle River; Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer; Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage; Rep. Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River; Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake; Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage; Rep. Josh Revak, R-Anchorage; Rep. Laddie Shaw, R-Anchorage; Rep. Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, R-Wasilla; Rep. Dave Talerico, R-Healy; Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla; Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer.
Senate Majority Leader Mia Costello, R-Anchorage; Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer; Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River; Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla.
• In Juneau: Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham; House Majority Leader Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks; Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage; Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage; Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage; Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome; Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau; Rep. Grier Hopkins, D-Fairbanks; Rep. Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage; Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage; Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai; Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage; Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka; Rep. Bart LeBon, R-Fairbanks; Rep. John Lincoln, D-Kotzebue; Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan; Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage; Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau; Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak; Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage; Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage; Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole; Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks; Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel.
Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage; Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage; Sen. Chris Birch, R-Anchorage; Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks; Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole; Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage; Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel; Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks; Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau; Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin; Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka; Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak; Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage; Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage.
• Excused absent: Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton; Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna; Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla.
All of the legislators in Wasilla favor a Permanent Fund dividend paid using the traditional formula. Most (but not all) of the legislators in Juneau believe a lesser amount should be paid.
Most lawmakers have different perspectives on what budget vetoes should be overridden or whether all of them should be overridden. The general pattern is that lawmakers meeting in Wasilla are less likely to support overrides.
• 10 a.m. Monday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy is scheduled to sign House Bill 49, the bill repealing and replacing Senate Bill 91, at the Alaska Department of Public Safety’s Lake Hood Hangar.
• 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, “Save Our State” rally against budget vetoes at the Alaska Airlines Center
• 9 a.m. Monday, bipartisan Permanent Fund Working Group meets to finalize reports to the Legislature
• 12 p.m. Monday, “Juneau Rally for Overrides” outside the Capitol building
• 1 p.m. Monday, special session convenes in House and Senate chambers, if quorum is available
• 2 p.m. Monday, House Finance Committee meeting to discuss new Permanent Fund dividend legislation
• 9 a.m. Tuesday, House Finance Committee meeting to discuss new Permanent Fund dividend legislation
• 11 a.m. Monday, PFD rally at Newcomb Park, will include march to Wasilla Middle School
• 12 p.m. Monday, “Protest Dunleavy” rally at Wasilla Middle School
• 1 p.m. Monday, special session convenes, if quorum is available
• 1 p.m. Monday, legislative welcome reception at Wasilla Middle School