Alaska lawmakers fail to override Gov. Dunleavy's education funding veto

Jan. 20—JUNEAU — The Alaska Legislature failed to muster enough support to override the governor's veto of extra school funding approved by the Legislature last year.

With schools across Alaska facing a budget crisis from high inflation and years of flat funding, lawmakers last May approved $175 million in one-time school spending outside the normal funding formula. Gov. Mike Dunleavy then vetoed half of those extra funds in June with little public explanation.

Education advocates in the Legislature pushed for a vote on overriding the veto after lawmakers convened in Juneau earlier this week. But even supporters of the move acknowledged they were unlikely to succeed in reinstating the roughly $87 million to the budget removed by Dunleavy, a Republican and former public school teacher.

Alaska has the highest bar in the nation for overturning a governor's budget veto. Three-quarters of lawmakers must vote in favor of an override to the budget, and on Thursday only 33 out of 60 lawmakers voted in favor of the override — far less than the 45-member threshold.

Those who supported the move included 14 Senate members — among them Senate President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, and Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican. In the House, 19 members supported the override, including all 16 members of the minority and three members of the majority who represent rural districts.

Many House Republicans joined minority members in voting in favor of the $175 million funding boost for education last year. But on Thursday, they stopped short of going against the governor.

"The only thing that makes sense is that they're honoring his veto," said Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage. "And they don't want to upset him, I guess. It's the only thing that's logical. There's been no change in circumstances."

"The districts didn't win the lottery. There's been nothing that should otherwise change their position," said Josephson.

'Plan for the future'

Lawmakers in both chambers have proposed their versions of legislation to permanently increase funding for Alaska's schools, and some legislators have said the focus should be on the permanent legislation, rather than the one-time funding boost.

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, argued after voting against the veto override that providing short-term, emergency funding for schools could "jeopardize" longer-term funding opportunities. He said he preferred passing a permanent increase to the per-school funding formula called the Base Student Allocation, or BSA.

"That gives the schools and school boards an opportunity to plan — plan for the future — as opposed to having to fight every year," he said. But a new education funding proposal he helped put together calls for just a $300 increase to the BSA, far less than the $1,400 increase educators say is needed to account for inflation since 2017, when the formula was last significantly changed.

The package of legislation unveiled by House Republicans on Wednesday includes several of Dunlevay's education priorities combined with the BSA increase, among them provisions meant to increase the number of charter schools, add funding for home-schooled kids, and provide teacher bonuses.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said Thursday vote was disappointing but that he hoped for progress on the permanent education funding bill.

Rep. Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage said "students definitely lost out" on Thursday.

"As the House Minority, we'll continue fighting hard to make sure that we get a substantive long term increase to the BSA this session," he said.

'Constitutionally required'

Thursday's joint session came after a consistent push by House minority members to convene a joint session, despite opposition from most House Republicans. A vote on holding a joint session to consider overriding Dunleavy's veto of education funding failed by one vote in the House on a 20-20 split Tuesday — the first day of the legislative session. After another motion for a joint session was introduced Thursday, some House Republicans grew concerned about legal advice that raised questions over the constitutional requirements to hold a vote.

Megan Wallace, the Legislative Affairs Agency chief legal counsel, said in a memorandum prepared for House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, that it could be argued "that the legislature is constitutionally required to meet in joint session to consider a veto," despite an ongoing practice by lawmakers not to do so.

But she said that "a court may also be disinclined to interfere with legislative procedure on separation of powers grounds. Ultimately, a court would likely uphold the past practice of the legislature to not automatically take up all vetoes."

Far-right Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman, who doesn't sit with the majority or minority caucuses, initially raised concerns about the constitutional requirements for a joint session on Tuesday. Eastman said after Thursday's floor session that Alaska's constitutional delegates made clear that a reconsideration vote was required.

After Thursday's floor debates, House Speaker Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, recessed the House for four hours for long caucus meetings behind closed doors. She declined to say how many members of the House majority had constitutional concerns, but that they wanted to stay "true to their own values" to follow the law by holding a joint session.

"We took an oath to uphold the constitution, so we want to be sure that we're doing that," Tilton said.

Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, confirmed he was one of the House Republicans who was concerned about the constitutional requirements to hold a joint session after it was brought to his attention last night. He said there were "a handful" of others in the majority caucus who shared his position.

"Once I read the constitution, it's clear to me in plain language that we have a responsibility to discuss vetoes when they're provided to the Legislature," he said. "So I took an oath to uphold the constitution, and that's what I do."

One reason lawmakers were initially hesitant to call a special session was because it forced them to take a public stance on an issue that is likely to come up repeatedly both during the coming legislative session and during the November election, when three-quarters of state lawmakers are up for reelection.

Among them is Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a Nikiski Republican and former school teacher who has come out strongly in support of a permanent boost to school funding. In this year's election, Bjorkman is set to face a challenge from Carpenter, a more conservative Republican who chose to run for the Senate rather than run again for the House seat.

Bjorkman, like Carpenter, voted against the veto override Thursday. He declined to comment on his vote after the joint session ended.

The last time lawmakers met to consider a veto override was in early 2020, when they failed to muster the votes needed to reinstate $74 million that Dunleavy had cut from Alaska's state budget the previous year.

In July, Dunleavy vetoed legislation intended to deregulate electric bike use in Alaska, which passed the Legislature in a bipartisan 57-2 vote last year. In August, Dunleavy vetoed a bill aimed at minimizing the use and spill risk from harmful chemicals that exacerbate climate change and can poison drinking water. That bill also passed with broad support, with 58 lawmakers in favor.

Those bills — because they are not related to the state's spending plan — require only meeting a two-thirds threshold for an override. Neither were brought up for an override vote on Thursday.

Here is a breakdown of how every lawmaker voted on the veto override:

Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River (N)

Rep. Jenny Armstrong, D-Anchorage (Y)

Rep. Thomas Baker, R-Kotzebue (N)

Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski (N)

Rep. Ashley Carrick, D-Fairbanks (Y)

Rep. Julie Coulombe, R-Anchorage (N)

Rep. Mike Cronk, R-Tok (N)

Rep. Maxine Dibert, D-Fairbanks (Y)

Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla (N)

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham (Y)

Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage (Y)

Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome (Y)

Rep. Alyse Galvin, I-Anchorage (Y)

Rep. Andrew Gray, D-Anchorage (Y)

Rep. Cliff Groh, D-Anchorage (Y)

Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau (Y)

Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, I-Sitka (Y)

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage (N)

Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer (N)

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage (Y)

Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake (N)

Rep. CJ McCormick, D-Bethel (Y)

Rep. Tom McKay, R-Anchorage (N)

Rep. Donna Mears, D-Anchorage (Y)

Rep. Genevieve Mina, D-Anchorage (Y)

Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan (Y)

Rep. Mike Prax, R-North Pole (N)

Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton (N)

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna (N)

Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River (N)

Rep. Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage (Y)

Rep. Laddie Shaw, R-Anchorage (N)

Rep. Will Stapp, R-Fairbanks (N)

Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau (Y)

Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak (Y)

Rep. Jesse Sumner, R-Wasilla (N)

Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla (N)

Rep. Frank Tomaszewski, R-Fairbanks (N)

Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer (N)

Rep. Stanley Wright, R-Anchorage (N)

Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks (Y)

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski (N)

Sen. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage (Y)

Sen. Forrest Dunbar, D-Anchorage (Y)

Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage (Y)

Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage (Y)

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel (Y)

Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Pamer (N)

Sen. James Kaufman, R-Anchorage (N)

Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks (Y)

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau (Y)

Sen. Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River (Y)

Sen. Robb Myers, R-North Pole (N)

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin (Y)

Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla (Excused absence)

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka (Y)

Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage (Y)

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak (Y)

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage (Y)

Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla (N)

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the vote of Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks. He voted yes in favor of overriding the veto, not no.

Sean Maguire reported from Juneau and Iris Samuels reported from Anchorage.