Alaska Legislature falls to override vetoes that prompt cuts
By DAN JOLING Associated Press
July 10, 2019 03:42 PM
State Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, speaks in favor of lawmakers overriding Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget vetoes Wednesday, July 10, 2019, Juneau, Alaska. Nearly a third of lawmakers were absent from the session at the Capitol, opting to meet in Wasilla instead, leaving only 38 members meeting in Juneau. It would take 45 votes to override the vetoes.
Juneau Empire via AP
The Alaska Legislature failed Wednesday to override budget vetoes by Gov. Mike Dunleavy that will prompt a massive 41% percent cut of state funding to the University of Alaska and lay waste to other programs the governor deemed unaffordable.
State lawmakers needed 45 votes — a three-fourths majority of the 60 members of the state Senate and House — to override the vetoes by Dunleavy, a Republican who took office in December.
More than one-third of legislators did not attend the special session in Juneau. All but one in attendance, Rep. Tammie Wilson, a North Pole Republican, voted to override but the effort still fell short with a 37-1 vote.
The special session began Monday and the Legislature has until midnight Friday to again consider veto overrides.
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Dunleavy also vetoed funding for a program that provides money to low-income senior citizens and state support for public broadcasting, the state arts council and ocean rangers who monitor cruise ship discharges.
He reduced spending for Medicaid, social service programs, reimbursement to communities for school construction, and the Civil Air Patrol, which provides training and search-and-rescue services for Alaska’s flying community.
He cut $334,700 for appellate courts, the same amount spent on abortion services through Medicaid in fiscal year 2018. Dunleavy opposed a state Supreme Court ruling in February that Alaska must fund abortion services through Medicaid.
Alaskans pay no state income or sales tax and receive annual checks of more than $1,000 from earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund, a savings account created with oil wealth and grown over decades by investment earnings.
Dunleavy has refused to consider new taxes or to tap into earnings from the permanent fund, as the Legislature has done for several years. He said last week that he based the budget vetoes on a desire to provide basic services “while understanding our fiscal constraints.”
Critics say the cuts go too far and many turned out at rallies to protest. A crowd of nearly 2,000 people that gathered Tuesday night at UA Anchorage featured Portugal. The Man, a Grammy Award-winning band from Wasilla.
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.
Officials outside Alaska were beginning to take notice. A faculty group, United Academics, distributed a letter from Sonny Ramaswarmy, president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, warning that UA accreditation could be jeopardized if student achievement is affected by budget cuts.
The absent lawmakers stayed away from the vote Wednesday because of an ongoing dispute about where the Legislature should meet.
Dunleavy called the special session and declared it should be held in his hometown of Wasilla, a city of 8,275 people about 43 miles (69 kilometers) north of Anchorage and in the heart of his conservative base.
Senate President Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican, and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, an Independent from Dillingham, instead opted to meet at the Capitol, a decision that minority Republicans in the House said was illegal.
Six senators were absent or excused Wednesday. Sixteen representatives stayed away. Many gathered at a makeshift legislative hall set up at a Wasilla middle school.
Anchorage television station KTUU reported that protesters in Wasilla shouted over the lawmakers during an invocation and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
The demonstrators took seats in a gymnasium that carried lawmakers’ names and chanted “Override 45!” referring to the number of lawmakers’ votes required to override the governor’s vetoes, and “Don’t hide, override!”