ANCHORAGE — Alaska lawmakers have rejected Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s location of his hometown of Wasilla for a special session that starts next month.
The Alaska Legislature will instead convene in Juneau on July 8 and then hold a majority of its meetings in Anchorage, House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, an independent from Dillingham, and Senate President Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican, said in a joint statement.
“The majority of legislators in both bodies considers it our right to determine the location and venue best equipped to conduct business on the governor’s special session call, while providing the most access to as many Alaskans possible,” the statement said.
“Instead of convening in Wasilla, legislative leadership is attempting to retreat back to Juneau,” Dunleavy said in a statement, adding that state law gives a governor the authority to set the location for a special session. “This move to negate the special session in Wasilla has no legal basis.”
When asked what happens if lawmakers actually convene in Juneau instead of Wasilla, Dunleavy’s spokesman Matt Shuckerow said: “We’re going to wait and see what happens. We hope that they think better of this and choose to come meet in Wasilla.”
Dunleavy had called the session for Wasilla, home to his conservative base. Dunleavy said a change of location for the second special session this year would be good for lawmakers, who have not completed their work in five months in Juneau.
Lawmakers from the region, the Matanuska-Sustina Borough, or the Mat-Su Valley as it’s known, touted the fact that unlike Juneau, Wasilla is on the state’s road system. Juneau is accessible by only plane or boats, but a majority of the state’s residents could drive to Wasilla.
“The fact that legislative leadership plans to run away from the Mat-Su Valley back to their hiding places in Juneau is extremely illuminating,” said House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt, an Anchorage Republican. “The legislative leadership has already tried to have these conversations on the budget, PFD (Permanent Fund Dividend), and education in the dark back rooms of far-away Alaska; they haven’t found answers. Now, we should be having these conversations in full view of the public.”
However, some lawmakers saw the Wasilla location as a means of intimidation or cited security or logistical concerns at his preferred site, Wasilla Middle School.
The sole topic for the special session is to determine the amount of this year’s oil fund check to residents, a politically divisive issue that has been simmering for years and is nearing a boiling point. The checks have been smaller for the past three years as political leaders struggling with a budget deficit strayed from a formula in state law for calculating them.
If the law is followed as Dunleavy wants, this year’s check will be about $3,000. The House, controlled by a bipartisan majority composed largely of Democrats, rejected a full payout during the first special session of the year, in Juneau, while the Republican-led Senate was more closely divided in not advancing a full payout.
Edgmon cited security concerns about the Wasilla location, earlier saying he received threatening phone calls and “angry, vitriolic” emails from people upset with lawmakers not approving the higher amount. He said many emails have come from the Matanuska-Susitna region.
Edgmon and Giessel said funding the check was important, but the agenda for the special session should have also addressed long-term stability of the program. They also faulted the call for the session not including the capital budget, which needs to be finalized by the end of July.
They said Alaska private sector businesses could be hurt if Alaska has to forfeit nearly $1 billion in federal highway and aviation projects because matching dollars would not be available if the capital budget isn’t approved.
The Legislature fell one short of the 40 needed to call itself into session and set its own agenda. However, Edgmon and Giessel urged the governor to expand the call of the session to include both of those items.
A 30-day special legislative session in Wasilla could cost $1.3 million, according to estimates released last week by the Legislative Affairs Agency. It estimates a 30-day special session in Juneau that includes House and Senate Finance committee meetings in Anchorage could cost around $855,000.