Some days, state government moves slowly, but Monday was not one of those days.
The majority of lawmakers in both the House of Representatives and Senate convened at 1 p.m. Monday in Juneau for a special session, and within 90 minutes there was a new Senate Majority Leader, an Alaska Permanent Fund dividend bill was given a hearing, and a time and date were set for a joint session for veto overrides — 11:30 a.m. Wednesday.
“At this point, we’re looking at a single override vote,” said Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, during a sit-down with reporters in her office. “We’ll see how that comes out. It will be an opportunity for legislators to actually show to constituents where their support is.”
Giessel and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, who joined Giessel in speaking to the press, each said it’s not totally clear what level of support exists for an override of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s more than $400 million in budget vetoes.
However, both Edgmon and Giessel said support is there from constituents.
“The public is speaking loud and clear,” Edgmon said. “They’re greatly opposed to the huge vetoes that the governor administered. I think by and large, that’s the message I’m getting as someone who attended large meetings both in Anchorage and Fairbanks and who’s heard from rural districts such as I represent. ”
The Senate President and House Speaker said they expect more legislators to be present in Juneau Wednesday for the vote. A smaller group of lawmakers were in Wasilla Monday, which Dunleavy named as the site for a special session.
Edgmon said if representatives don’t show, then it’s up to them to answer to their districts as to why they stayed away from an important matter.
Giessel said she expects most of the six absent senators to be present Wednesday.
One of those absences led to a change in Senate leadership after the special session convened.
Leader Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, was ousted as Senate Majority Leader in favor of Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel. Hoffman also replaced Costello on the Rules Committee.
“I need a majority leader, so we changed her out,” Giessel said. “It’s a permanent change.”
Earlier, Giessel said Costello would still be welcome to caucus with the Senate Majority.
Only one member of the House Majority was absent Monday, Edgmon said. Rep Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, was part of the Wasilla contingent.
“I think it’s going to be a topic of discussion with our caucus when she gets back,” Edgmon said. “It’s something that we’ll be addressing later on.”
Will work pay dividends?
A bill establishing a $1,600 PFD, House Bill 2001, was also given a hearing during the manic Monday.
That total is similar to last year’s PFD and about half of the $3,000 PFD supported by Dunleavy. It was among a handful of PFD options discussed by the Bicameral Permanent Fund Working Group to start the day.
“The issue before the Legislature is do you overdraw the earnings reserve based on long-term projections and based on the long-term health of the fund massively cut the budget and pay every Alaskan a sort of double-sized permanent fund dividend?” Edgmon asked. “Or do you strike a compromise within those goal posts?”
The $1,600 PFD bill will receive further consideration by both the House and the Senate Tuesday in a handful of committee meetings expected to dominate the day in the Capitol.
Edgmon said the legislators gathered in Juneau were there to do their jobs of ensuring there is a dividend today and tomorrow, which is a balance not everyone understands or appreciates. However, he said public sentiment seems to favor smaller dividends in exchange for more state services.
“Most people throughout the state are willing to accept a responsible permanent fund dividend as long as we can do our job in the Legislature and provide for quality education, public safety, transportation — essential services that Alaskans come to depend on,” Edgmon said. “And when they are cut to the degree they were a few days ago by the governor’s veto pen … the public, I think are coming out en masse, like they did when the governor’s original budget came out Feb. 12.”
• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.