Throughout the regular, extended and special sessions of the Legislature this year, it was sometimes difficult to tell who the adults were in Juneau. But in the garbage fire that was the second special session of the year, it became painfully apparent who the children were. The tormented week saw almost no action by either legislative chamber and lasted only five days before the House gaveled out sine die. The Legislature’s abject failure to pass legislation, compromise on budget priorities or even communicate has passed beyond tragedy to farce. At this point, there can be little hope that any meaningful budget action will be taken this year — legislators have displayed they have neither the will nor the temperament to make the hard choices necessary.
It was only a matter of hours after the second special session began Monday when the wheels started to come off. Senate leadership opted not to call a joint session of the Legislature to consider overturning Gov. Bill Walker’s line-item budget vetoes, leaving the matter to the House. When the House attempted to call such a session, the Senate declined, with Senate President Kevin Meyer saying there was little support for a veto override in his chamber and that the three-quarter majority vote necessary for overturning vetoes would be essentially impossible to attain. Without clear leadership to provide a path forward to work on budget issues, the House then opted to take their ball and go home.
The worst part, other than the roughly $12,500 per day cost of what can only be described as a complete waste of state resources, was the grandstanding. It wasn’t restricted to one chamber of the Legislature: On Wednesday, Sens. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, and Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, inveighed against Gov. Walker and his administration at a hearing on plans to restructure Alaska Permanent Fund earnings. They blamed the administration for not taking the Legislature seriously, citing an absence of high-level officials at the meeting as evidence the governor had little respect for legislators or members of the public in attendance. In response, the governor’s office produced documents showing that not only were officials unable to attend because the Legislature intentionally scheduled meetings on the same topic at the same time in Juneau, Anchorage and Wasilla, they had made legislators — including Sen. Stoltze — aware of that conflict the day before.
It wasn’t just majority lawmakers making such statements. Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, went so far as threatening a lawsuit over the vetoes.
In the House, the most overblown statements were reserved for comments just before the body adjourned Friday. “Despite the governor’s veto, I will never give up; I will never surrender,” said Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, making a bold-sounding statement that meant little. Was Rep. Johnson, an advocate of reducing the size of government, upset with the governor’s vetoes that reduced the budget by an amount greater than legislators — including Rep. Johnson — could accomplish? Was he angry that the governor had vetoed part of the dividend allocation in an attempt to make it easier for the Legislature to find its way to a sustainable fiscal solution? In any event, whatever “I will never surrender” meant, it became moot a few minutes later when the House gaveled out, surrendering to the reality that the veto would stand and stating plainly that the body had no will to work to solve Alaska’s fiscal deficit.
Technically, the Legislature is still in session, as the Senate has yet to gavel out. But the writing is on the wall: Sen. Meyer has said he has no plans to force the House back into session, and Gov. Walker said last week that if legislators couldn’t make progress on fiscal issues in this session, he wouldn’t call another before the November election.
The governor did what he could to make working on a long-term fiscal solution palatable for legislators. But in the end, he couldn’t drag them to the table. The Legislature — and the House in particular — has opted to spend out of savings for another year rather than chart a course toward a balanced budget. Alaskans should remember their intransigence and failure to act come election season.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,