Thirty-nine state senators and representatives met at the Alaska Capitol in Juneau Thursday to hold a largely symbolic debate over Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s vetoes that would cut over $400 million from the state’s budget.
Without the 45 votes needed to override the governor’s vetoes due a contingent of lawmakers hosting a dueling session in Wasilla, legislators in Juneau were left giving impassioned speeches condemning the governor’s vetoes and urging their colleagues in Wasilla to join them.
Debate over where authority lies to set a location for a special session has been very contentious and has left the Legislature, and the public, deeply divided.
Only one additional legislator has arrived in Juneau since Wednesday, Sen. David Wilson, Republican from Wasilla.
The politicians in Juneau of all political stripes had strong words for the governor and the legislators still in Wasilla, at times accusatory, at others, attempting to reconcile.
“I hold no malice to my colleagues,” said Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, though he said the cuts made by Dunleavy’s vetoes would cause “destruction” of the state, saying, “we must change course.”
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, was less generous.
“My constituents have had their constitutional rights stripped by a group of dissidents,” he said. He gestured to the empty seats of the missing legislators and accused them of trying to undermine the Legislature’s constitutional powers by “running away.”
Lawmakers in Wasilla are responding to the call of Dunleavy for the special session to be in Wasilla, his hometown. Dunleavy said the change of venue to the heart of his conservative base would be good for lawmakers who could not finish their work over five months in Juneau this year. Most lawmakers rejected that call, citing their right to determine the location and venue for legislative sessions.
Despite the harsh rhetoric, many who spoke at Thursday’s Joint Session said that they were determined to find a way forward.
“We will fix this,” Rep. Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage, said.
Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, described the past two days as being some of the hardest in his life, but said he was confident in the Legislature’s ability to find a solution
“Will we succeed? We’re not going to make it today, but we have to make it. Alaskans are counting on us to make it.”
Although there were calls to come together, the strong language did unsettle some legislators. Wilson told reporters after the session that he found some of the lawmakers’ rhetoric needlessly superfluous and divisive.
“No one’s going to have blood on their hands for voting, or for making cuts, that’s not going to happen,” Wilson said. He was referring to comments Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, made Wednesday in the House Chamber; Fields said legislators who supported Dunleavy’s cuts, particularly the cuts to health and safety programs would have “blood on their hands.”
“We’re going to find a path forward,” Wilson said. “I personally won’t let this state just go up in flames.” Saying he could only speak for himself, Wilson said, “I make my recommendation to folks in my leadership and it’s up to them to negotiate.”
Peter Torkelson with the Senate Majority Press Office told the Empire that “Senator Giessel and Governor Dunleavy are speaking daily, seeking a constructive pathway forward.”
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.