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Alaska Legislature

Alaska Legislature fails to override Dunleavy vetoes

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: January 25
  • Published January 24

Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla (at right) talks to Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River (center) and Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer (left) after Reinbold was ruled out of order by Senate President Cathy Giessel during a joint session of the Alaska Legislature on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020 in Juneau. (James Brooks / ADN)

JUNEAU — A joint session of the Alaska Legislature failed Friday to muster the votes needed to override a $74 million cut from Alaska’s state budget last year by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

The money would have gone to the Alaska Marine Highway System and K-12 schools across the state, but 20 representatives and senators voted against the move, which failed 37-20. Forty-five votes were needed for the override to pass. The vetoes under consideration represented less than half of the $205 million ultimately sliced from the budget by the governor.

Legislators attempted to override a bigger chunk of the governor’s vetoes last year, but 22 of the Legislature’s 60 members did not participate in that override vote. On Friday, only three lawmakers were absent: Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, and Rep. Mel Gillis, R-Anchorage. (Gillis and Wilson were excused.)

“This is sort of unfinished business, and we’re finally coming full circle,” said Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka.

Legislators debated the override for 3 1/2 hours before voting on a package of overrides that would have granted the Alaska Marine Highway System $5 million, rural school districts $19.7 million and larger school districts $48.9 million. Those amounts would apply to the budget passed by the Legislature and governor last year and in effect now.

School bond debt vote fails

Without the overrides, local school districts will assume a greater share of the cost for new schools and school renovations. Last year, the governor vetoed half the funding for a program that subsidizes construction. The override would have restored full funding.

The Municipality of Anchorage said last year it will need to increase property taxes to cover an expected $20 million extra cost, estimating a $210 property tax increase for a $350,000 home.

Anchorage Assembly member and mayoral candidate Forrest Dunbar took to social media after the vote.

“Whelp, there you go,” he wrote on Twitter. “Anchorage property taxes will be rising.”

“This is real money. This is a budget reduction, and property owners are getting their taxes raised,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, who voted in favor of the override.

Those voting against the proposal said there are alternatives to large property tax increases. Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, said the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District has taken those steps.

“We are prepared, and we’ve got the support from people back home, to vote against this,” she said of the override.

Mat-Su Borough finance director Cheyenne Heindel said the borough built its budget last year with the expectation of no help from the state.

“It’s not going to impact us this year; it basically leaves us status-quo,” she said of the failed veto override.

“The people of the Mat-Su are not coming to the Alaska Legislature demanding that they need more money, because government’s not the answer,” said Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake.

Other lawmakers referenced a November audit indicating the Anchorage School District had a fund balance of $140 million and that other districts had available money as well. An official with the Anchorage School District said that is wrong.

“The Anchorage School District has $140 million in reserves. I do not see that as passing it on to taxpayers,” said Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, before she voted against the proposal.

After the vote, ASD chief financial officer Jim Anderson said most of that amount cannot be spent.

“Anchorage School District does not have $140.8 million in available reserves,” he said.

“The vast majority of the fund balances listed on DEED’s document are already committed. The available fund balance, $31.1 million, is set aside for crises, contingencies, and budget shortfalls,” he wrote by email.

Sen. Elvi-Gray Jackson, D-Anchorage, and Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, each said that fund balances are for emergencies, and Hoffman said that the Legislature’s failure to override means schools will now be spending local money on debt payments instead of teachers. Both voted in favor of the override.

Told about Anderson’s comments, Costello said she received an email from ASD after the vote, and that had school bond debt been considered as a separate item, rather than packaged with ferry funding, she may have voted for it. Her primary reason for voting “no” was because of the ferry money’s inclusion.

Ferry funding to come in supplemental budget

The $5 million override considered for ferry service was a late addition by the Legislature last year after it was revealed that existing budgets would cut most winter service for coastal communities.

This week, the Dunleavy administration disclosed that it will request an additional $12 million for ferry maintenance and service in the state’s supplemental budget. The administration’s proposal is due in the first week of February, and Giessel said she expects the total to exceed $300 million.

Those voting against the override said it does not make sense to approve $5 million for more service when there may not be ferries available to provide that service.

“I am going to be voting no on this because I understand that critical maintenance needs to take place on the ferries before they can be fully operational,” Costello said.

Sam Dapcevich, a spokesman for the Marine Highway System, confirmed by email that the money would not have added additional sailings.

Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, estimated that a supplemental budget could pass the Legislature no sooner than April 1 and urged an override.

“We can get $5 million into the ferry system right now. We don’t have to dilly-dally and dither,” Kreiss-Tomkins said in the same vein.

‘Groundhog Day’ for some

Last year, the governor vetoed more than $400 million from the state’s operating budget in June. When the Legislature failed to override his vetoes, they passed legislation that restored funding. (Fewer votes are required to pass legislation than to override a veto.)

The governor subsequently vetoed about half of that bill, leaving a $205 million cut atop the $147 million cut by legislators themselves. Friday’s votes addressed that second round of vetoes, but there were indications beforehand that the result would be no different.

House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, had said Thursday that he doubted any of his group’s 16 members would vote in favor of an override, and that proved true.

“I don’t really understand. I feel like it’s kind of a ‘Groundhog Day’ why we’re doing this because I don’t think it’s going to end up with a different result,” said Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage.

Afterward, Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said it was worth a vote to inform the public.

Pruitt thought differently, saying in a written statement that the vote “was about nothing more than creating material to use against other members in the next election cycle.”

Giessel said the items voted upon Friday were chosen by a “majority of the majorities” in charge of the House and Senate.

Some lawmakers, such as Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, were prepared to propose more overrides if the opportunity was ripe. Kawasaki had drafted proposals to overturn vetoes covering funding for public broadcasting, Civil Air Patrol and agriculture, but when he asked around, he couldn’t find enough support.

Given the three hours of debate to consider the overrides already on the agenda, he declined to even try.

“The support clearly wasn’t there. Those were the two that were agreed upon by the majority of the majority in leaderships, but at least you’ve got the record now,” he said.

The Alaska Legislature has not overridden a gubernatorial budget veto since 2009.

How they voted

Voting yes (37): Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage; Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage; Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham; 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. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage; Rep. John Lincoln, I-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. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks; Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage; Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks; Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel; Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage; Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks; Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole; Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage; 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.

Voting no (20): Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla; Rep. Sharon Jackson, R-Eagle River; Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer; Rep. Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River; Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake; Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage; Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage; Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton; 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; Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole; Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage; Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer; Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Kenai; Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River; Sen. Josh Revak, R-Anchorage; Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla.

Excused absent (2): Rep. Mel Gillis, R-Anchorage; Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla

Absent (1): Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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