Gov. Mike Dunleavy discusses his veto of a wide-ranging education bill during a press conference Friday at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy discusses his veto of a wide-ranging education bill during a press conference Friday at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Veto override vote on education bill expected to have consequences — and no assurance of extra funds

Retaliation by governor, fractured relationships within Legislature on other issues among concerns.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy is talking about not rolling over like a rainbow trout on education policy, while legislators are pondering what punishments he might impose if they override his veto on a sweeping schools bill during a joint session scheduled Monday.

Meanwhile, officials in some school districts are scrambling to cope with the possible loss of state funds already budgeted, while others such as those in Juneau are continuing to lobby lawmakers for an increase they aren’t yet counting on.

Dunleavy’s veto of Senate Bill 140 on Thursday set in motion a series of combative and curious happenings on Friday, including legislative leaders confirming a joint override session is scheduled at 2:15 p.m. Monday. The governor, acting like someone auditioning for a job in a second Trump administration, gave an eclectic hour-long press conference where he referred to himself in the third person and declared “I think the educational discussion is over.”

However, the latter statement obviously wasn’t literally true as Dunleavy continued to recite a list of policy priorities he has repeatedly stated he wants from legislators if he’s going to approve an increase in the Base Student Allocation that’s at the heart of the debate. Currently set at $5,960 per student for the fiscal year that starts July 1 — an amount nearly unchanged since 2017 — SB 140 contains an increase of $680.

Dunleavy, gesticulating widely with his arms while mockingly referring to the BSA as “the holy grail, the dilithium crystals of education,” said his staff will “run numbers to see what really needs to happen” with the amount of such funding.

“I can tell you the doors will be open,” he said. “The kids will be going to school. The teachers — the poor teachers that had an opportunity that was taken away from them by their own group that’s supposed to look out for them — they’re going to get paid. The lights are going to be on. It’s going to happen.”

The BSA increase accounts for about $175 million of the $200 million in costs in SB 140, which also includes boosts to pupil transportation, correspondence schools, remedial reading efforts, broadband capabilities for rural districts and other programs. Among the priorities cited by Dunleavy are allowing a state board to approve new charter schools that school district officials say will hinder local control and year-end teacher retention bonuses of up to $15,000 that numerous legislators have questioned the effectiveness of.

SB 140, which originated simply as a rural broadband bill, passed the Legislature by a 38-2 vote in the House and 18-1 in the Senate, due to dealmaking during the early days of this year’s session that resulted in it being packed with policies from all points of the political spectrum. The $680 BSA matched a one-time increase approved by the Legislature last year — although education advocates say about twice as much is needed to offset inflation since 2017 — but Dunleavy vetoed half of the increase and legislators failed to override that veto by a 33-26 vote.

It’s unknown if there are 40 votes in the 60-member Legislature to override the veto of SB 140 since some members of the Republican-led House majority, which has 23 of the chamber’s 40 lawmakers, who voted for the bill have either said they will vote to sustain the veto or are not committing to an override. Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, said there are also “quite possibly” some among the 17-member bipartisan Senate majority who could vote to sustain the veto.

Among the factors of consideration for legislators, especially those who have supported Dunleavy, is whether legislation of budget items of theirs could be targeted by the governor if they vote to override his veto of SB 140.

“Members are worried about that,” Kiehl said. “What the most senior members have said is ‘don’t trade horses.’ Work with anybody who can accommodate changes that you can accommodate, compromise wherever you’re able to help others move their vision forward and do the same as you push yours. But don’t trade horses.”

Dunleavy said legislators will be held accountable — although he didn’t say specifically to him — for how they vote Monday.

“I would say if folks are contemplating an override they have to they have to kind of answer a rhetorical question that probably will be posed to them, actually: why did you override?” he said. “Did you think that this (deals) with charter schools in a manner that is going to take care of the backlog of those folks that want to go to charter schools and send out a message to the charter school world that we’re we’re open for business, and we’re going to help with charter schools? This bill doesn’t really do that. Does it help with teacher retention? The bill doesn’t do that. It’s a spending bill.”

Even if an override occurs, Dunleavy emphasized he can still veto some or all of the extra BSA funds — or other expenditures in the bill — when he signs the budget in June.

“So folks will take a look at it, they’ll have to decide if that spending bill — which doesn’t put a dollar into the budget, only the appropriation process does that — if that’s worth an override,” he said. “They’re going to have to make that decision.”

It takes a three-fourths vote of the Legislature — 45 votes — to override a veto on budget items.

That high threshold and the power of a line-item veto is giving Dunleavy leverage to be confrontational with legislators, an approach he is also taking elsewhere such as a wide range of “statehood defense” challenges involving the federal government and mocking media coverage of his administration. Kiehl said it’s “basically the same approach” the governor has taken during his six years in office, aside from a brief period surrounding his reelection in 2022, and “it’s gotten very, very little of his agenda passed.”

Vetoing a bill that passed by a 56-3 vote also raises questions about Dunleavy’s desire to work with legislators on compromise solutions, said House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent.

“It does send a message to the Legislature, and I think puts some doubts in legislators’ minds that the governor really is willing to work with us and see us solve some of these issues,” he said. “But just because the governor has maybe taken a stance that’s a little more hostile to the Legislature doesn’t in any way minimize our desire, and really dictate, to find solutions for Alaskans.”

Dunleavy stood steadfastly by his approach during his press conference.

“If being confrontational is doing the right thing and having a moral imperative, I’m guilty,” he said.

However, beyond the political maneuverings are the policy implications of concern to both lawmakers, educators and others directly affected by the outcome of the veto override vote and subsequent actions during this session.

“It is unfortunate that the governor’s veto forces schools to face further uncertainty, larger classrooms and instructional loss,” Senate President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, said in a prepared statement. “Our efforts from across political spectrums aimed to equip our schools with the resources essential for effective learning. Despite ongoing discussions with the governor over the past two and a half weeks to explore further compromises in a supplemental education bill, we were unable to come to an agreement.”

Furthermore, SB 140 did contain a number of the governor’s policy goals that were inserted by the Republican-led House majority as part of the deal-making process, Kiehl said.

“With the same stroke of the pen the governor killed the boosted correspondence money that he wanted,” he said. “It killed the charter school coordinator that he wanted. It killed the appealing (of) charter school terminations that he wanted. One of the great ironies is he’s likely to close several charter schools in Alaska with this veto.”

Beyond education are other issues of importance, with energy cited by Dunleavy and legislative leaders as a priority due to a natural gas supply crunch in Southcenteral Alaska. However, legislators have said that in addition to worrying about confrontations with Dunleavy if his veto of SB140 is overridden, there is concern a fracturing of alliances among legislators could occur on issues if the veto override fails due to a multitude of defections after the agreement approving the bill.

Meanwhile, school districts are watching the outcome of Monday’s vote with anxiety, especially since some have already approved budgets that assume there will be an increase in the BSA.

The Anchorage School District, for example, passed a budget that reinstates funding for 69 full-time teachers by assuming a BSA increase of $110. The district, in a prepared statement late last week, declared “the repercussions of the governor’s veto are dire and far-reaching.”

“To balance our budget in recent years we have exhausted nearly all of the district’s emergency savings, increased class sizes, and eliminated teaching positions,” the statement notes. “The $680 BSA increase will inject approximately $50 million into our schools, offering a lifeline to preserve vital positions and programs essential for the educational well-being of our students.”

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District approved a budget that assumes a full $680 BSA increase. District Superintendent Clayton Holland, after Dunleavy’s veto Thursday night, called it “a decimation of public education.”

The veto, Holland said, means the district — which is facing a roughly $16 million budget deficit for the upcoming fiscal year — must go “back to the drawing board.”

“The board makes the decision ultimately, but my recommendation is not to go with a speculative amount of money,” he said. “We can’t gamble on a $300 or $400 and not know what he’s going to do … Depending on what our legislators do over the next couple of days, if they override, it’ll tell us one thing, if not, then we will continue with a $13 to $15 million budget deficit it would be the single biggest hit that we’ve ever taken at one time.”

“Even a late reversal of one-time funding that would come in June, in so many ways is too late,” he added.

The Juneau Board of Education approved a budget on Thursday night — just before Dunleavy’s veto was announced — that assumes no increase in BSA or other state funding will occur. The budget deals with a crisis-level deficit of nearly $10 million in a $67.8 million operating budget by consolidating schools and laying off about 12% of the district’s employees.

But District Superintendent Frank Hauser said he plans to continue lobbying legislators to approve a BSA increase and hopes the governor allows it to remain, which would allow the district to rehire teachers currently slated for layoffs and restore programs targeted for cuts.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at or (907) 957-2306. Ashlyn O’Hara of the Peninsula Clarion contributed to this story.

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