Alaska Legislature fails to override vetoes that prompt cuts

Bryce Edgmon, Tom Begich, Cathy Giessel, Lyman Hoffman

Leadership of the Alaska House and Senate confer Wednesday, July 10, 2019, at the state Capitol in Juneau, Alaska, where lawmakers failed to override Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget vetoes. About a third of the lawmakers were absent from the Juneau session, choosing to meet in Wasilla instead. Standing are House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, from left, Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich and Senate President Cathy Giessel. Seated are Senate Majority Leader Lyman Hoffman, left, and House Majority Leader Steve Thompson, with his back to the camera. (Michael Penn/The Juneau Empire via AP)

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The Alaska Legislature failed Wednesday to override budget vetoes by Gov. Mike Dunleavy that will prompt a massive 41% cut of state funding to the University of Alaska and lay waste to other programs the governor deemed unaffordable.

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.

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.

The effort fell short with a 37-1 vote in Juneau. Only Rep. Tammie Wilson, a North Pole Republican, voted not to override.

The special session began Monday and the Legislature has until midnight Friday to again consider veto overrides.

In Wasilla, where Dunleavy wanted to hold the special session, Anchorage television station KTUU reported that protesters took seats reserved for lawmakers and chanted, “Don’t hide, override!”

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.

House Majority Leader Steve Thompson, a Fairbanks Republican, said the cuts will devastate the University of Alaska, a world leader in Arctic research.

“With these reductions, it will no longer be the Arctic university,” he said.

Rep. Zack Fields, an Anchorage Democrat, said the governor sacrificed Alaskans’ health, jobs and lives for policies that are not even fiscally conservative.

“It will not save money to shut down homeless services and cast hundreds of people into the streets in Anchorage,” Fields said.

Dunleavy administration officials have refused to answer questions about impacts of the cuts, said Sen. Natasha von Imhof, an Anchorage Republican.

“Our future is on the line and we cannot even get basic answers,” she said.

A message sent to Dunleavy’s spokesman seeking comment was not immediately returned.

Alaskans pay no state income or sales tax and receive annual checks of around $1,000 or more 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. 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.

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.

Edgmon said vetoes could be reconsidered Thursday. Money eliminated by vetoes also could be restored in bills addressing capital projects or permanent fund dividends. As Alaska voters realize the effects of the vetoes, Edgmon said, they may persuade other lawmakers to support an override.

“We’re not done fighting,” he said.

Zachary Freeman, spokesman for the House Minority, said in an email that legislators gathered in Wasilla have no plan to join their colleagues in Juneau.

“We will be back at Wasilla Middle School tomorrow at 11 a.m. to continue our work in the location the law requires,” he said.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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