ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A final battle remaining from the Sarah Palin era as Alaska governor closes Monday when the Legislature votes on whether to override her veto of federal stimulus money for energy cost relief.
The vote will happen in a one-day special session scheduled for the Egan Center in Anchorage, just the second time a special session has been held outside of the capital city of Juneau. It won’t be easy to override Palin’s veto — 75 percent of the Legislature has to vote for an override in joint session to make it happen.
“My sense over time is that the numbers to override the veto will be there at the end of the day. But I don’t know for sure,” said Rep. Mike Hawker, an Anchorage Republican who has led the efforts in the House on the stimulus package.
At least one lawmaker, Nome Rep. Richard Foster, isn’t expected to attend. So even if all 59 other members of the Legislature show up, only 14 need to vote against the override in order for Palin’s veto to stand.
The other item on the session agenda is a vote on whether to confirm Craig Campbell as lieutenant governor. The Senate will hold a hearing prior to that vote.
The special session will probably cost the state around $112,000, said Pam Varni, executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency. It’s considered more expensive than having it in Juneau because of extra costs, including renting the Egan Center, flying up needed staffers and securing equipment. But Varni said she doesn’t have good figures to compare costs of the locations.
The session won’t be televised on Gavel to Gavel like regular sessions are in Juneau because of the cost of the satellite link and bringing up crew.
Proponents of having it in Anchorage cite convenience value for legislators who live around the city or in commuting distance. It also opens the session to people in the state’s population center who don’t normally see legislative action in person, and there are at least three rallies planned to take advantage.
“We don’t very often get a chance to directly confront our Legislature while in session on an important issue,” said Mark Fish, who is helping organize an anti-stimulus rally.
The override vote culminates a drawn out fight between the Legislature and Palin. She vetoed the appropriation of $28 million in federal energy stimulus cash in May, two months before resigning as governor. Palin argued that accepting the money would require the state to “entice” local communities to adopt building codes. “There isn’t a lot of support for the federal government to coerce Alaska communities to adopt building codes,” she said.
Palin initially balked at accepting nearly a third of the stimulus money available to Alaska. But the Legislature rejected her concerns and the $28 million that she vetoed represents only about 3 percent of Alaska’s total package.
Legislative leaders say Palin is wrong about the strings attached to the money.
The U.S. Department of Energy sent Alaska lawmakers a letter this week seeking to reassure them that the Legislature “does not need to adopt, impose and enforce a statewide building code in order to qualify” for the energy stimulus cash.
The letter said Alaska’s governor or Legislature can qualify for the money by assuring “that the state will encourage, promote and assist municipalities that choose to adopt their own energy-efficiency codes to achieve the goals … reduced energy consumption in public or private buildings.”
Senate Majority Leader Johnny Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat, said it would make no sense for the state with the highest energy costs in the nation to turn down money that could be used for energy efficiency and weatherization work.
“We’d be the only state to refuse the money, and if we did it would just go to another state,” Ellis said. “So it would not help the federal deficit.”
But North Pole Republican Rep. John Coghill, who plans to vote against the veto override, said he sees no guarantee that the federal Energy Department won’t change its rules and enforce strings on the money that Alaska doesn’t want.
“And, politically, up here in my neck of the woods, I was surprised at how many people were saying no,” Coghill said. “It was overwhelming, so you’ve got to listen to your constituency. And since I can’t demonstrate to them the clarity that some in the Legislature believe, I’m going to vote no.”
Protest planner Fish, a National Guard retiree who ran as a Republican for the state House in East Anchorage last year, said he’s gone through the stimulus law and is unconvinced by arguments that Alaska has nothing to lose by accepting the money.
“It will require Alaskans meet international energy conservation codes. … Section 410 of the recovery act will be applied, not the opinions of department of energy bureaucrats,” said Fish. He said there hasn’t been a long time to plan, but he hopes at least 100 people show up at the protest, which will be across the street from the Egan Center on Monday. Fish and others involved in the protest also participated in the “tea party” tax protests this spring; The Anchorage tea party drew more than 1,200 people.
Rep. Hawker said he’s not sure what more he can do to convince skeptics like Fish. He pointed to the department of energy letter saying no statewide building code is required.
“I think a lot of people will continue to maintain that the federal government is lying to them, has always lied to them and always will lie to them,” Hawker said. “I can’t expect to carry on much of a debate with someone who has that closed of an attitude.”
People supporting the stimulus veto override, including AARP and energy conservation groups, will be holding their own rally across from the Egan Center at 8:30 a.m. ADT (two and a half hours before the anti-stimulus rally starts.) Groups including the Alaska State Home Building Association, Alaska Municipal League, Commonwealth North, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the Municipality of Anchorage and the Emmonak Tribal Council have written letters to state legislators urging them to go ahead and accept the money.
Another group is taking advantage of having the Legislature in town by holding a rally over the recent federal ban on new people from enrolling in Medicaid programs serving disabled and elderly Alaskans.
The new governor, Sean Parnell, supported Palin’s veto of the stimulus money but said he’ll go along if the Legislature overrides her veto. Parnell is calling for the Legislature to expand the agenda of the special session and vote to block the return of the state’s 8-cent-a-gallon state gas tax.
Legislative leaders aren’t going to take up the gas tax, though. They said that would push the session beyond a single day and there’s worry that being the only state without a gas tax would hurt Alaska’s clout in asking for federal road dollars.
They want this to be a quick session, with a 10 a.m. hearing on Campbell’s confirmation and then a 1 p.m. joint session to vote on him as well as the veto override. Campbell has been “acting” lieutenant governor since Palin resigned July 26 and Parnell moved up from lieutenant governor to take her job.
The House Judiciary Committee already had a hearing on Campbell and state representatives from both parties said afterward they would vote for his confirmation. But at least some state senators are not committing to support Campbell, the former state commissioner of military and veterans affairs who was on the Anchorage Assembly from 1986 to 1996.
Senate Majority Leader Ellis said he wants to see Campbell’s Senate confirmation hearing.
“At least some of us are waiting; we’re not jumping the gun and want to go through the correct process,” Ellis said. “We know there have been problems in the past when there’s been a failure to vet appointments. Gov. Palin went through one of those with Chuck Kopp for department of public safety (commissioner).”
Kopp resigned after 14 days on the job last year amid accusations of sexual harassment in a previous job.
San Jose Mercury News