“There are no rules.” Senators confront Dunleavy administrator over political veto on Legislature budget
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Over the past three years, Governor Mike Dunleavy and his administration have tried and mostly failed to exert their political will on the Legislative Assembly, the judiciary and Alaskans with just about any tool at their fingertips. They tried hard through re-readings of the law and fidelity pledge dismissals that yielded little more than a series of lost cases and court settlements. One of the governor’s favorite tools and, frankly, the most effective in bending others to his will has been the budget. He doesn’t command the numbers from the Legislative Assembly to get his budget approved, but he has the numbers to thwart any effort to override his vetoes, which he uses enthusiastically. He used this political reality to bleed the University of Alaska, undermine Alaska’s maritime highway system, and slash dozens and dozens of other programs. ranging from foster care and legal services for victims of domestic violence to state tourism marketing budget. In most cases, vetoes reduce the budget passed by the legislature to the budget originally proposed by the governor. In some cases, the governor has wielded his veto pen like a club against other branches of government.
The best example being his $334,700 vetoes in the Alaska court system over his ruling that struck down an anti-abortion law. The action served as a plank for the Recall Dunleavy campaign and spawned a lawsuit that brought the governor with another decision that found he had violated the separation of powers by attempting to exert political will on the courts by through the budget.
But if you think he would have learned, then I have a bridge, a dam and a small diameter gas pipeline to sell you.
In last year’s round of vetoes, the governor saw fit to eliminate the Legislature’s $1.9 million total budget for per diems. Being a per diem lawmaker meant he didn’t set off as many alarm bells as the rest of his vetoes, but it raises the same questions and concerns about the governor’s willingness to push the budget .
Those concerns were expressed today when the Senate Finance Committee hosted Dunleavy’s budget director, Neil Steininger, to discuss the supplementary budget. The Supplementary Budget is a fast-track budget intended to cover unforeseen budget gaps in the current year, such as the wildfires and the restoration of Dunleavy vetoes that everyone knew were unattainable (the Medicaid formula being the main one). This contains the per diems of the Legislative Assembly for the current year.
“Is there a reason for that?” asked Senator Bert Stedman, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who has become particularly pugnacious with the administration.
“To ensure that per diems can be paid to legislators,” Steininger replied, trying to hurry through what must have been an uncomfortable talking point.
“What was the reason for the veto? Stedman asked.
“Chairman Stedman,” replied Steininger, “the veto was issued as part of the governor’s deliberation on veto points. The veto was effectively put in place because there was no action on critical issues of the state and the governor, you know, sought to draw attention to that through the veto.
This specific inaction being the Legislature’s refusal to withdraw Alaska’s permanent fund to pay the dividend sought by Dunleavy and the refusal to pass a list of constitutional amendments dealing with the PFD and strict limits on the ability of the Legislature to tax and spend. It is also the first time, to my knowledge, that a reason — not to mention such an openly partisan reason — has been given for the veto. The governor’s veto papers, which are usually the place to explain the reasoning for his actions, only contained “Per Diem Session Veto for Legislators” for explanation. They couldn’t even bother to muster a half-hearted explanation of tighter budgets or the right-sizing of government.
(And, if we’re getting too pedantic about it, that’s not even correct because he didn’t just veto the per diem session, but the all daily budget.)
Stedman was quick to explain why all of this matters when the issue of legislator compensation is all the rage. The governor’s attack on the Legislature’s budget is unprecedented, representing an interference with the basic operational capacity of a co-equal branch of government in service of undermining its political independence in the pursuit of policy objectives. And, more importantly, is this the new norm?
“So am I to assume that if we don’t agree with anything the governor asks, we’re going to repeat that?” … Is this the message from the administration? … Are we to assume that our budget is going to be vetoed in part or in whole if we do not accept a constitutional change to diminish our authority in the legislative branch of government?
Steininger responded that the administration was not pushing for an Alaska Permanent Fund overdraft this year. When pressed repeatedly whether the administration would oppose the budget to the legislature if it did not comply, Steininger declined to give a straight answer. Instead, he reiterated that the Dunleavy administration is focused on getting these constitutional amendments — which require a two-thirds vote threshold, a ridiculously high bar — on the ballot.
“That’s the message the administration is trying to send,” he said.
For Stedman, the message was clear that the Dunleavy administration no longer abides by any semblance of rules that have guided the state:
“I think it’s clear that either we fully agree with all the policy proposals coming out of the administration or our budget is subject to review and reduction. This message came through loud and clear. …Over the years, no matter who the governor is or was and no matter what policy direction he wanted the state to take, he submitted his budget to the Legislative Assembly, and we basically agreed with that. him, even though we strongly disagreed with the governor. We presented our legislative budget at the same time as that of the court. There was practically no passage to the other routes.
“It is clear with this administration that there are no rules. There are no buffets, and the 40-year precedence means nothing. It’s a problem and how we solve it, time will tell, but it’s pretty clear that in the creation of three branches of government, one branch will not have authority over all the other branches because they didn’t get what they want go ahead and inflict budget sanctions on them.
Stedman later added that in the interests of state stability, they cannot support a situation where a governor gets to bulldoze changes to the Alaska Constitution by maintaining the Assembly budget. legislation on them.
Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, also made a point of it, saying the governor’s strong arming of the other branches is starting to look eerily familiar in the final days of President Donald Trump’s term.
“What I perceive is that we are slowly moving towards a more totalitarian perspective where we have an administrative branch that seems almost Trumponian,” he said. “The big concern I have is with the next election coming up, should we expect another insurrection outcry on January 6th by the people who didn’t win this election? People in my district are worried that something nasty is going to happen here… I see things gravitating towards a more chaotic iron rule attitude.
In the big picture: Even given the difficult relationship between the Senate Finance Committee and the administration, these are some of the most serious allegations I have heard at the governor’s level. And they are not wrong. The governor’s decision to veto legislative pay combined with Steininger’s admission that she was politically motivated makes no significant difference from the unconstitutional vetoes granted to the Alaska court system. This bad blood is going to be important to keep in mind as the budget prepares.
After all, Dunleavy can cut spending with his veto pen. He cannot increase it.
Follow the thread: Senate finance committee tackles supplementary budget