A board in the House Chambers at the Alaska State Capitol shows Monday’s vote tally of 39-20 to override Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of Senate Bill 140, one vote short of the two-thirds necessary. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A board in the House Chambers at the Alaska State Capitol shows Monday’s vote tally of 39-20 to override Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of Senate Bill 140, one vote short of the two-thirds necessary. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Legislature fails by a single vote of 39-20 to override Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of education bill

Legislators warn bad blood may hamper other issues as numerous Republicans abandon earlier support.

This is a developing story.

The Alaska Legislature failed by a single vote of 39-20 to override Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of a sweeping education bill that included a $680 increase in the state’s per-student funding formula, setting up what legislators on both sides of the aisle said may be a contentious remainder of the session that will put a range of other policies and goals at risk.

The failure to override the bill was a clear political victory for Dunleavy, with legislators acknowledging he put considerable pressure on Republicans to sustain the veto on Senate Bill 140 or risk consequences with policy and budget priorities during the session, and opposition during this year’s elections. A total of 14 House members and three senators — all Republicans — voted to uphold the veto after originally supporting the bill in a combined 56-3 vote in late February.

“I think it makes it hard because now the House Majority has to go to the governor for every policy and say ‘Is this good enough, governor? How should we vote on this today?’” said House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent, during a press conference with other representatives of his 16-member caucus after the vote. “I think that makes it very difficult to cede legislative power to the governor and put everything in his hands.”

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, a Soldotna Republican who co-chairs the House Education Committee, speaks in favor overriding a veto of Senate Bill 140 during floor debate of a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature on Monday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, a Soldotna Republican who co-chairs the House Education Committee, speaks in favor overriding a veto of Senate Bill 140 during floor debate of a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature on Monday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

SB 140, which originated last year as a bill simply to boost broadband speeds in rural districts, became an all-encompassing bill by the opening days of this year’s session as various provisions from all political sides were tacked on. In addition to a $680 increase to the $5,960 Base Student Allocation, it included boosts for pupil transportation, correspondence and home schools, remedial reading efforts, and other programs.

However, Dunleavy made good on his promise to veto the bill unless additional legislation was sent to him addressing his policy priorities, which included allowing a state board to approve new charter schools — a power that currently lies with school districts — and year-end teacher retention bonuses of up to $15,000.

“I want to thank the Legislature for their hard work and commitment to implementing new education reforms that put Alaska families first,” Dunleavy stated on social media after the failed override vote. “Let it be clear to school boards and associations: education funding will be prioritized and available – I support solutions that move us forward.”

State Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, greets educators and other people rallying in a hallway of the Alaska State Capitol just before the Legislature’s override vote on Senate Bill 140 on Monday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

State Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, greets educators and other people rallying in a hallway of the Alaska State Capitol just before the Legislature’s override vote on Senate Bill 140 on Monday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Before the joint session legislators had to walk past dozens of education advocates lining both sides of the hallway leading to the House Chamber holding signs and occasionally offering chants such as “o-ver-ride” to lawmakers who were believed to be swing votes. But only a few remained in the hallway after the two-hour debate and failed vote to override.

“My next step is to keep supporting the legislators who are pulling for education and trying to do our best with the monies that were given,” said Janette Gagnon, an instructor at the Johnson Youth Center. “I’m a public school teacher and I believe that students deserve better than what they have right now.”

Gagnon said the impacts from rejection of SB 140 will affect the students she works with more than many in urban school districts such as Juneau’s.

“My students come from all over the state and so when they go back to their home districts they may not have access to the same things they have here because of this,” she said. “The ones who come from villages that don’t have access to the electronic education that they do here, the electronics for classes for testing. They make huge gains when they’re at JYC because they’re in a facility without distractions with cell phones, but then they go back to their own districts and if they don’t have good access then they’re going to suffer from that.”

However, the bill also significantly impacts the Juneau School district since the $680 BSA allocation would have provided roughly $5.2 million next year, when 12% of employees are slated to laid off due to a nearly $10 million operating budget deficit. The BSA increase could reverse many of those layoffs — but not a consolidation of schools already approved by the school board — but local officials say they aren’t counting on the extra funds based on the governor’s action to date.

House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent, presides over a press conference of the minority caucus following the Legislature’s failed override vote of SB 140 on Monday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent, presides over a press conference of the minority caucus following the Legislature’s failed override vote of SB 140 on Monday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Legislative leaders in the House and Senate said they will try to move forward key items in SB 140, including an increase in the Base Student Allocation that was the primary focus of debate, but doing so will be difficult knowing that the governor will retain the ability to veto any extra funds when he signs the budget in June.

Furthermore, many legislators said, that will make it hard to “move on” to other issues such as addressing an energy shortage in parts of the state, as some colleagues and the governor are urging.

“I think it damages everything,” said Senate President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, in an interview after the vote. “We have got to solve education. We can’t go on to energy until we solve education. We can’t leave here with no funding for education. I don’t think anybody wants that. So yeah, although it has really sucked all the oxygen out of the place I think, we will continue to deal with education. And we’ll see what we can do about energy, but it is going to be hard to do both at once.”

House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, said in an interview there are other bills that have been introduced, including one on Monday, that contain many of the provisions of SB 140 that the Legislature can continue to work on.

“I think as far as the House goes we’ll be moving the bills through the process and through the committee process, and let other committees kind of break off and start doing those things that we need to be doing on energy because — as somebody said on the floor — we can really be doing both of those things at one time,” she said.

As for the Republicans who voted to uphold the veto of SB 140 after voting for it less than a month ago, Tilton said the bill fell short of what some members were hoping for and the veto offered a chance to further consider those issues.

“I think that the thing that caused a lot of pause was really putting a larger BSA into the base without understanding what the school districts really need,” she said. “And so, and I think I said in a press conversation earlier, that people have to vote whatever they feel their conscience is and what their districts are. We’re a divided Alaska; some districts need this and some districts need that. And yes, the governor did indicate that he was unhappy with the pieces of a bill that were missing from the bill, but we have those pieces filed for him.”

Rep. Kevin McCabe, a Big Lake Republican, said during floor debate that while he originally voted for SB 140, in actuality he was hoping for a veto by Dunleavy due to some of the provisions added just before the final vote.

“I wanted to get to the governor’s veto as fast as possible so we can have an intelligent, honest conversation on our school outcomes and on education,” he said. “The conversation in the last month has not been honest, not by any stretch of the imagination, not from either side.”

McCabe questioned educators’ claims of statewide budget shortfalls, stating situations vary widely by district, as well as other concerns such as declining enrollment since he said the number of students statewide has been relatively level for the past decade. He also said “school districts are a business” that are failing to provide adequate returns for the funds invested in them.

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, a Soldotna Republican who co-chairs the House Education Committee, was among the members of his party voting to override the veto, stating the funding in the bill is needed to provide predictable funding for school districts, and support for Alaska’s homeschool and charter school students.

“I was personally elected by the people of Kenai and Soldotna and they have overwhelmingly told me this is a bill that they support and as their representative, I will choose to continue to vote in support of this and I urge other members of the body to do that same,” he said.

Given the one-vote margin of defeat, there were some “what-ifs” about the vote count, the outcome of which members in both chambers said was uncertain. Some members of the House Minority Caucus, comprised mostly of Democrats and independents who all voted to override, said there were some surprising votes both ways in the final tally.

One member of the Legislature — Rep. George Rauscher, a Sutton Republican — had an excused absence from the session for reasons not immediately known, although some members said he likely would have sustained the veto. Also, Rep. Thomas Baker, a Kotzebue Republican, was appointed by Dunleavy as the new District 40 representative for this session after former independent Rep. Josiah Patkotak was elected North Slope Borough mayor last fall.

Baker told the Anchorage Daily News on Monday he met with Dunleavy “four or five times” last week before voting to sustain the veto.

Some legislators said the political impacts of Monday’s override vote will stretch beyond the end of the year’s session.

“I think what the governor has done, and House Republicans who are his mercenaries, is turn the election into a referendum on public education,” said Rep. Zack Fields, an Anchorage Democrat, during the minority caucus press conference.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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