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Alaska Lawmakers Show Up In Different Cities, Stuck On $444 Million Budget Vetoes

Katherine Hayes waves a flag and a sign in Wasilla, Alaska, urging state lawmakers to fund a full oil wealth fund check, known locally as the PFD for Permanent Fund Dividend.
Mark Thiessen
Katherine Hayes waves a flag and a sign in Wasilla, Alaska, urging state lawmakers to fund a full oil wealth fund check, known locally as the PFD for Permanent Fund Dividend.

There's a split going on among lawmakers in Alaska this week, but it's more than just political. For a special legislative session convened by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy to address his line-item budget vetoes, some lawmakers came to Juneau, the state capital, and a smaller contingent of Republicans who are aligned with the governor gathered in Wasilla, Alaska, a more conservative part of the state.

Dunleavy had called lawmakers to Wasilla for the sake of "convenience" because of the city's location, but some lawmakers said it was a move to gin up political support among constituents more sympathetic to the governor and his $444 million budget vetoes. Those spending cuts would severely affect the state's university system, cash payments to the elderly and early education.

Also at issue is the dollar amount for the oil wealth fund check, known locally as the PFD for Permanent Fund Dividend, a sum from oil dividends given to Alaskans annually.

In Juneau, there are enough lawmakers for the Legislature to conduct business. "Government is perking along as it should, in the seat of government which is also identified in the [state] Constitution," Senate President Cathy Giessel, a Republican, said on Monday.

Both the House and Senate have meetings scheduled Tuesday to talk about the impact of the governor's line-item budget vetoes. They've also scheduled a vote on Wednesday to potentially override them, but still lack the votes needed to get that done.

In Wasilla on Monday, 17 House members and four senators — all Republicans — met in a middle school gym. Seats were arranged for all 60 legislators, but there weren't enough members present to hold a session.

It's not clear what might bring the two different sets of lawmakers together in the same location. The Legislature has until Friday to override the governor's vetoes.

Meanwhile, this has given Alaskans the chance to offer their opinions about whether to uphold the vetoes. Monday, dozens of citizen lobbyists turned out, first lining a stretch of the Parks Highway before walking to Wasilla Middle School, where they greeted lawmakers with dueling chants: "Save our state" and "Follow the law" and "Override!"

The demonstrators along the highway had gathered for an event in support of Dunleavy. One was Steven VinZant, 57, who said he supports the line-item vetoes because of what he sees as inefficiencies and high salaries in state government, including the university system, which would lose $130 million if the vetoes are upheld.

"There are some awful big beautiful buildings that cost an awful lot of money that could have been more utilitarian," VinZant said, referring to the university campus. "We could have more books, more computers if we didn't have grandioso buildings for millions of dollars."

Many of the demonstrators were from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, one of Alaska's most conservative areas. But VinZant drove 3 1/2 hours to Wasilla from his home in Soldotna, where he has worked as an adjunct professor at the state university system.

He said he's a little worried about what the steep budget veto to the university could mean for his students, but he also said he's on their side in trying to stop lawmakers from reducing the Permanent Fund dividend, as they have the past few years.

Others who lobbied lawmakers to override the vetoes met the opposing protesters outside the middle school where lawmakers were meeting. The two groups squared off along a pathway into the school.

More protests happened outside, in front of the Alaska Capitol building in Juneau, calling for the Legislature to override Dunleavy's budget vetoes.

Brian Holst, executive director of the Juneau Economic Development Council, told the crowd the $440 million in cuts to state spending will increase local taxes and turn away millions of dollars in federal support.

"We join the call on the Legislature to override," Holst told the crowd.

Holst is also president of the Juneau School District Board of Education. He said the unprecedented cuts to the University of Alaska and early education will destroy the talent pipeline Alaska relies on to strengthen its economy.

That point was echoed by Israa Kako, who joined the protest along with her preschool-age daughter, Allie. Kako said she recently accepted a job out of state. Now she has to decide whether to move or try to work from home so she doesn't have to uproot her family.

"If the cuts to education occur, Allie will not go to college here. She will not go to school here because there needs to be funding for good teachers," Kako said.

Andrew Kitchenman is a reporter at KTOO and Alaska Public Media; Adelyn Baxter is a reporter at KTOO; Nathaniel Herz is a reporter at Alaska Public Media; Rashah McChesney is a reporter on Alaska's Energy Desk.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrew Kitchenman
Adelyn Baxter
Nat Herz
Rashah McChesney
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