KODIAK — Following the Legislature’s failed vote to override Governor Mike Dunleavy’s budget vetoes Wednesday, a crowd of roughly 70 locals gathered at the Kodiak Legislature Information Office on Thursday to protest the roughly $444 million in cuts to the state budget.
The Governor’s cuts include reductions to the University of Alaska, Medicaid, reimbursement to communities for school construction, state support for senior citizens, public broadcasting, the state arts council and more.
A special session began Monday and the Legislature has until midnight today to consider veto overrides. Lawmakers need 45 votes — a three-fourths majority of the 60 members of the state Senate and House — to override the Dunleavy’s vetoes. The Wednesday effort fell short with a 37-1 vote in Juneau. Only Rep. Tammie Wilson, a North Pole Republican, voted not to override. More than one-third of lawmakers missed the vote, many because of an ongoing dispute about where the Legislature should have met for the special session.
Minority members of the Alaska House of Representatives and a handful of state senators on Thursday again refused to join colleagues at a special session in Juneau, thwarting efforts to overturn budget vetoes by Dunleavy.
Dunleavy called for the special session to be in Wasilla, his hometown and the home of his conservative base. Senate and House leaders, citing security, access and expense, decided to instead to meet at the Capitol in Juneau.
The missing lawmakers have been gathering at a makeshift legislative hall in the gymnasium of a Wasilla middle school. They say the Juneau session is an illegal gathering and they will not attend.
In anguished floor speeches, lawmakers warned of harm to vulnerable Alaskans and severe damage to the state economy if vetoes were not overturned.
“Please join us,” said Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, a 20-year legislative veteran and the son of an author of the Alaska Constitution. “The people of Alaska need your voice. We can’t do it without you.”
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, the co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, called his missing colleagues “dissidents” who were not fulfilling their sworn duty.
The absent lawmakers, he said, had thwarted his right to argue in favor of money to expand a Ketchikan dock. The dock expansion is needed for Ketchikan to home-port a federal hydrographic survey vessel.
“I want my constitutional rights back,” he said.
Kodiakans joined protesters from various other communities across the state Thursday to demonstrate against the cuts. The day before, a small crowd in Wasilla took seats reserved for 22 lawmakers in the town. They chanted: “Don’t hide, override!”
Kodiak City Mayor Pat Branson and Borough Mayor Dan Rohrer spoke at the rally on The Rock on Thursday, urging members of the crowd to email every lawmaker they could as soon as possible.
“They’re playing chicken with the futures of Alaskans and that’s unacceptable in my mind,” Rohrer said.
Rohrer said that there are certain things that the Kodiak Island Borough Assembly is going to have to reckon with in the coming year –– for example, how to fund the additional bond debt reimbursement that, in prior years, the state had previously funded. Rohrer said that this will likely drive up property taxes locally and will impact everyone in Kodiak on some level.
Rohrer noted that many of the cuts will take a while before people feel the impacts, while others are already being felt.
“The immediate impacts are senior benefits. Seniors thought they were receiving a check July 1 and did not get it and won’t be getting it going forward. That’s a huge impact,” Rohrer said.
Rohrer also pointed out that the Governor’s biggest veto –– a 41% cut to the University of Alaska –– is already being felt by students. University of Alaska officials say the system will lose $135 million on top of a $51 million cut over the past six years, which resulted in the loss of 1,200 faculty and staff members and 50 academic and degree programs. The officials warned that if the veto was not overridden, as many as 2,000 more staff and faculty would be lost, including 700 at UA Anchorage, along with 40 degree programs.
On the day he announced his list of vetoes, the Governor said that small campuses won’t be affected by the cut. Rohrer doesn’t buy this.
“The Governor doesn’t have the right to say that it won’t impact rural campuses –– that’s something that the board for the university system decides,” he said. “It’s certainly going to impact Kodiak students. I had a young person talk to me just yesterday saying: first of all, they’ve now been notified that they lost their performance scholarship that they got from graduating from high school, so they financially don’t know if they can go back. They can try to get loans to make up the difference –– but at this point they don’t even know if their major will exist or if the professor will still be there.
“They’re wondering, ‘Can enough of this be figured out so it doesn’t destroy my future? I think that’s a legitimate question.”
The crowd of protesters in Kodiak held signs saying “Save Our University” and “SOS Recall Dunleavy” and “45 Override.” Cars honked their horns in support as they drove by.
Branson said that the City of Kodiak has sent letters to each lawmaker with comments on the vetoes and a request to override them. While the City received some responses from those lawmakers who have remained in Juneau, it received none from any of the lawmakers who are avoiding the vote in Wasilla.
“If you know any of those representatives or you have relationships with people who live in the valley –– that’s what we need to do and we have to do it tonight,” Branson said. “These cuts are really posing an Alaska and a Kodiak community that we don’t want to live in. It’s not what we came here for. So please go home tonight, send those emails … and encourage them to override all 182 vetoes.”
Speaking with the Kodiak Daily Mirror on Thursday, Rep. Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak) said that she’s “hopeful” that a vote might happen, before accusing those lawmakers in Wasilla of not representing their constituents.
“Right now there’s about 250,000-275,000 Alaskans who are not being represented. They’re not having their voices heard by their representatives not being here,” Stutes said. “I believe that the Governor is in Wasilla doing whatever he can to prevent that minority from coming to Juneau. They’re trying to run the clock out. Do they represent the Governor or do they represent the people that put them in office?”
Stutes called the cuts “draconian” and said that she and the lawmakers that remain in Juneau are doing everything in their power to mitigate the situation.
“The cuts that have been made by this administration, in my opinion, they’re turning the light off in Alaska. They’re showing that we’re not open for business. It’s going to cripple communities, and it’s going to be particularly hard for rural Alaska,” she said.
Stutes was aware of the protest in Kodiak and praised those who turned up to make their voices heard.
“I’m delighted. I love my district. I love Kodiak. I love their proactiveness. I love their attentiveness and I love their willingness to listen,” she said. “We have one more day to see if the minority shows up. We’re hopeful, we’re hopeful.”
In an interview with KDM on Thursday, Senator Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak) also lauded the Kodiak protesters.
“I think it’s great that people are now beginning to realize the price we’re going to pay if these vetoes are not overridden,” Stevens said. “Both Louise and myself voted to override. I hope they (the protesters) realize that we’re in agreement with them.”
Unlike Stutes, however, Stevens was pessimistic over the Legislature’s ability to override the vetoes. He said he had “no doubt” that the 22 lawmakers in Wasilla would not turn up to vote in Juneau.
Stevens referred to the cuts as “shocking.”
“A lot of vetoes have a major impact on our community, so we’re very concerned about them.” He expressed concern that the cuts to the university may trickle down to Kodiak College and pointed “we’ll be the only state without a council of the arts,” he said.
Stevens did point out that there is a chance that, during negotiations over the state capitol budget and the size of the permanent fund dividend, the legislature may be able to put some money back into the programs that have seen reductions –– but only if the Governor is receptive.
“There’s still some maneuverer room,” he said. “We could do some things in the capitol budget, but anything we put in that budget could be vetoed as well.”
Stevens said he’s hoping that, through negotiations, the Governor will compromise on his intent to distribute a $3,000 PFD and will opt to reinstate funding some of the services that he’s vetoed.
The capitol budget must be finalized by the end of July to attain matching federal grants. The size of the PFD must be finalized by August 7, the end of the special session.
Additional reporting via wire reports