In a bold rejection of Gov. Mike Dunleavy's call for a special session in Wasilla, legislative leaders announced Monday they plan to hold the second special session back in Juneau with some committee meetings held at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, and Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, released a joint statement Monday announcing their most recent flex in a tug of war between state lawmakers and the governor.
While the news release notes that the Legislature doesn't quite have the 40 votes needed to call itself into a special session, legislators still feel they are within their right to decide where session should be held.
“Although we are one vote short of the 40-vote threshold to call ourselves into our own special session agenda, the majority of legislators in both bodies considers it our right to determine the location and venue best equipped to conduct business on the governor’s special session call, while providing the most access to as many Alaskans possible," the joint statement reads.
The two legislative leaders also pushed Dunleavy to include the state's capital budget and an extended discussion of future dividend-related issues on the special session agenda. According to state law, whoever calls the session is able to dictate the topics to be discussed. Dunleavy called the session earlier this month and stated that the amount of the dividend is the only topic to be considered.
"The Governor’s proclamation also fails to include the Fiscal Year 2020 capital budget. If the capital budget is not finalized in July, Alaska’s private sector industries could be devastated by forfeiting nearly $1 billion in federal highway and aviation projects because required state matching dollars were not provided," the statement from Edgmon and Giessel reads.
The legality of the leaders' decision to return to Juneau remains in question.
Austin Baird, spokesman for Edgmon, explained in an email to reporters Monday evening that the situation is unprecedented.
"For the first time in the history of our state, the governor attempted to force lawmakers to hold a special session somewhere other than the Alaska State Capitol. While the Legislature will convene for the governor's special session — as required by the Alaska Constitution — most lawmakers believe it would be inappropriate to spend $1.3 million on legislative proceedings in a building where Alaskans would not be able to follow along remotely or provide testimony telephonically on the crucial questions surrounding the future of the Permanent Fund and the Dividend Program," Baird wrote in an email.
"As a compromise, most committee hearings will be held in a venue where residents with access to the road system can participate directly in legislative proceedings and everyone else can participate remotely," Baird wrote. "Bottom line, the Legislature will hold the governor’s special session, and we believe this fact is legally significant."
Dunleavy released a statement Monday afternoon accusing the Legislature of "skirting the law."
“Our focus has been on bringing the people and Legislature together on the PFD. But instead of convening in Wasilla, legislative leadership is attempting to retreat back to Juneau. This move to negate the special session in Wasilla has no legal basis. A governor is clearly empowered to call a special session in a location of their choosing (AS 24.05.100),” Dunleavy wrote in a statement, citing Alaska Statute Title 24, Chapter 5, section 100. "The Senate President and Speaker of the House admit they lack the votes to change the venue or call a special session of their own, yet they are committed to thwarting the law and the voice of the Alaskan people.
"This is all part of why Alaskans have lost trust in their lawmakers," he said. "How can we with a straight face expect people to follow the law when the legislative leadership ignores, breaks, and skirts the law at every turn?”
A majority of the Fairbanks lawmakers support the return to the state's Southeast capital, but some consider the legal ground to be shaky.
Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, agreed the legal guideline for who can decide a special session location is unclear.
"We've all heard that there are dueling legal opinions. Clearly the governor has the ability to call the Legislature into special session, but what's not clear is who can ultimately decide the location," Kawasaki said. "I'm more of a wait and see type guy but I would certainly support Juneau over Wasilla. Juneau is the state capital and it's set up for it, it just makes more sense."
However, Senate Rules Chair and North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill said Monday afternoon he not only supports the move back to Juneau but encouraged it.
"For two primary reasons: One of them is the separation of powers, that's the biggest one. The governor chose the location, went and scoped out the building and from what I understand, got some pretty significant office space for himself and then invited the Legislature to come look at it. I just didn't like that style," Coghill said.
The Fairbanks area's third senator, Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, was out of cellphone reception Monday at his cabin in Manley Hot Springs and could not be reached by phone. Bishop's position on the matter is unknown.
In the House, freshman Rep. Grier Hopkins, D-Fairbanks, said he supports the special session in Juneau.
"It just makes sense," Hopkins said, adding his support for the hopeful inclusion of the capital budget in the session call. "I think we definitely need to take it up. I think not including the capital budget is a giant mistake for Alaska construction and our workforce. There's a billion dollars in transportation infrastructure across that state that needs to be addressed and funded."
Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Adam Wool said he understands the need for some committee meetings to be on the road system but that ultimately the Legislature belongs in Juneau.
"We will have meetings on the road system which people can participate in, which we've done before. People can come and testify and listen and yell at us if they want to," he said. "But it's the issue of separation of powers in having the governor tell us where to meet. I get he's from Wasilla and a lot of his supporters are from Wasilla, but we work in Juneau."
Fairbanks Republican Rep. Bart LeBon had some questions about the legal grounds for who is able to dictate the location of a special session.
"As far as going back to Juneau, that's my preferred location," LeBon said Monday afternoon. "But I don't really know how this is going to pan out."
House Majority Leader and Fairbanks Republican Rep. Steve Thompson was unable to be reached for comment Monday but questioned the logic of a Wasilla special session in an interview late last week.
Healy Republican Rep. Dave Talerico is the only Fairbanks area representative to be part of the House Republican Minority, all of whom support the Wasilla special session.
"I didn't have any issue with it in Wasilla," Talerico said. "I wasn't expecting this at all though. From my understanding they don't have enough votes to call themselves back, so from a legal standpoint it looks a little shaky. I mean they're close to 40 but not there."
A member of North Pole Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson's staff said the representative had emailed a statement to the Daily News-Miner. The News-Miner had not received the statement by the end of business hours Monday.
The Legislature is set to convene the second special session on July 8.
Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.