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Lawmakers to vote Monday on overriding Dunleavy’s veto of education bill


Alaska lawmakers will meet in Juneau on Monday afternoon to vote on whether to override Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of a $200 million education funding package.

The governor made good on a threat Thursday that he would veto the bipartisan bill passed by lawmakers if they didn’t also pass his education priorities, including a temporary teacher bonus plan at a cost of roughly $60 million per year and a provision to allow a board appointed by the governor to approve new charter schools.

In interviews after the veto, a number of lawmakers said they thought it was possible they’d reach the 40-vote threshold needed to override the governor’s action. Fifty-six of the 60 lawmakers voted to pass the bill last month; the votes were 38-2 in the House and 18-1 in the Senate.

In a news conference Friday morning, Dunleavy railed against what he called education “special interests,” occasionally referred to himself in third person, called the school funding formula the “dilithium crystals of education” and repeatedly quoted from an Anchorage Daily News editorial published in February.

“I was faced with, ‘Dunleavy, just pass the bill, just let it become law.’ And I kept asking the question with all these bills and all this spending, ‘Why? Why? What does it do for families?’” Dunleavy said. “In the end, I don’t fault any of the legislators for the work they did on this bill, but the system is set up where it just didn’t work.”

Dunleavy began by complimenting House Republicans who proposed early in the legislative session an education package that included all of the governor’s education priorities. But after House Republicans realized that they didn’t have the votes to pass that package in their own chamber, they worked with the bipartisan majority in the Senate to craft a compromise that included a boost to the state’s funding of public schools, a funding increase for home-schooled students, and several other provisions that both chambers could agree on.

The governor also thanked Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski, who took a leading role in negotiating the education package.

“They came from different perspectives and brought something together. From my perspective, obviously, it wasn’t enough,” the governor said.

Wielechowski was less complimentary of the governor after the news conference.

“It’s not entirely clear what he wants, I would say,” said Wielechowski. “The one message that stuck out to me was, no matter what happens on Monday with the veto override, he may not fund it.”

‘Everybody’s going to be getting pressured’

During the news conference, Dunleavy said that even if lawmakers override the veto, “that doesn’t guarantee money in the budget in the end.” The comment indicated Dunleavy would consider vetoing part of the education funding in the budget once lawmakers pass it, which is expected to happen at the end of the legislative session. Lawmakers said it was rare — or unheard of — for governor to veto funding from the education formula.

“As the governor very clearly said, he still has the veto pen,” said Wielechowski.

Still, Wielechowski said lawmakers — and in particular House Republicans — would likely face significant pressure from opposing groups to either override the veto or allow it to stand.

“This weekend’s going to be a big weekend. Everybody’s going to be getting pressured,” said Wielechowski.

Already, he said, he saw an email coming from an Alaska GOP official urging Republicans to stand with the governor. On the other end, education and labor groups were urging lawmakers to override the veto.

“I think it’s self-explanatory,” said Judy Eledge, president of the Anchorage Republican Women’s Club. “We don’t want our Republican governor overridden. We think he had every right to do the veto. And so we just want to be sure that all our Republican legislators don’t override him.”

Bethany Marcum, director of Alaska’s chapter of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, said volunteers with the group would contact legislators to ask them to sustain the veto.

Anchorage Republican Rep. Tom McKay, who beat a Democratic opponent by nine votes in 2022, said Friday that lawmakers “don’t have to override.”

“We can still do a lot of good things for education, both policy-wise and funding-wise,” said McKay. “There is a path for folks to get a really good education bill and really good funding increase in the BSA without having to override the veto.”

Joelle Hall, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, the state’s largest labor organization, said she would work with other education advocacy groups to encourage people to call their representatives and urge them to override the veto.

After 56 of 60 lawmakers voted in favor of the bill last month, “logic would dictate that they would override at the same level. If they won’t, a few short weeks later, people who live in districts should be asking, ‘Why? Why did you change your mind?’” said Hall.

Rep. Louise Stutes, a Kodiak Republican who caucuses with the mostly Democratic House minority, said lawmakers “can make it difficult for themselves, or not.” House minority members have indicated they would vote to override the veto.

“They have to make the choice — am I going to listen to my constituents or not?” Stutes said.

‘A sad day’

Dunleavy said he believes he has “a moral imperative” not to “kowtow” to the National Education Association of Alaska, the union representing more than 12,000 public education employees. The union’s members have been some of the most vocal proponents of an increase to the state’s spending on students, which has not changed significantly since 2017, despite significant inflation.

Tom Klaameyer, president of the Alaska NEA, said Dunleavy’s veto made for “a sad day for Alaska.”

“He’s been fairly anti-public education for most of his political career,” Klaameyer said about Dunleavy, who moved to Alaska to work as a teacher and eventually became a superintendent and school board member before serving in the Legislature. “He claims his credentials as an educator, but as a politician, he’s done nothing but seek to undermine our public education system in Alaska.”

Klaameyer said his message to lawmakers was to “override the veto in a big way and send a message to (Dunleavy) that he can’t bully them.”

Lawmakers this year agreed to increase the $5,960 Base Student Allocation by $680, a figure called for by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District last year to avoid significant cuts to its programs. That figure represents around half the funding increase that education advocates say is needed to make up for seven years without a significant increase in the formula.

Education Commissioner Deena Bishop said that while there hasn’t been an increase to the BSA, there have been funding boosts through one-time federal grants allocated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bishop was an advocate for increasing the BSA while she served as superintendent of the Anchorage School District, but has changed her position after joining the Dunleavy administration.

In a letter sent to school families and staff Friday, Anchorage School District Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt and School Board President Margo Bellamy wrote that they encourage the “community to make their voices heard to their state representatives to override the governor’s veto.”

“The future of our students and staff hangs in the balance,” they wrote.

According to the letter, if the bill is allowed to become law, it would inject around $50 million into schools in Anchorage — the largest district in the state — at a time when it faces a $100 million deficit. That funding would be “a lifeline to preserve vital positions and programs,” Bellamy and Bryantt wrote.

Dunleavy said he would support an increase to education funding this year even if the bill remains vetoed, but refused to say what amount he would find acceptable.

Without an increase to school funding through the BSA, lawmakers say a one-time increase would likely be included in the budget. Lon Garrison, executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards, said one-time funding does not allow school districts to plan for the long term.

”Money outside the foundation formula is simply spending money on the needs at the time, with little expectation of what the long-term benefit is going to be,” he said.

Dunleavy said it was time to move on to other issues for the remainder of the legislative session, including addressing the state’s energy supply.

“I’m surprised by how many times he said, ‘We’re moving on,’” said Rep. Justin Ruffridge, a Soldotna Republican, after the news conference. ”My sense is others don’t feel that way.”

Dunleavy said he would “cross the bridge when we come to it” on determining whether to veto any of the education funding eventually included in the state budget. Last year, Dunleavy vetoed $87 million in one-time extra education funding added to the budget by lawmakers. Legislators failed earlier this year to overturn that veto.

“Even if the bill passed, there’ll be continual questions. ‘Is Dunleavy going to veto it?’” Dunleavy said. “To clear up maybe a myth, Dunleavy doesn’t go home at night and sharpen knives on the kitchen table at the mansion saying, ‘I can’t wait to use these.’”

Reporter Iris Samuels reported from Anchorage and reporter Sean Maguire reported from Juneau.

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