Four senators voted Friday against a procedural move by Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, to waive a committee referral on a proposed constitutional amendment, and one of them was a member of the Senate majority caucus: Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau.
Now Egan’s future in the caucus is unclear, with the Juneau senator — who joined the majority in a surprise defection across party lines last November — and the Senate majority leader saying that his membership is likely to be discussed during caucus meetings Tuesday. But Huggins himself praised Egan as a “good man” and dismissed the idea he could face consequences for opposing the referral change.
Egan said Monday that he regrets his vote, but said candidly that he thinks his caucus’ leadership went about it in the wrong way — even as he acknowledged that his opposition could earn him the boot from the caucus.
“They’re probably going to kick me out,” Egan said, half-jokingly. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Senate Democrats rose in objection Friday when Huggins recommended that a referral to the Senate Education Committee for Senate Joint Resolution 9 — a proposed amendment to the Alaska Constitution from his fellow Wasilla Republican, Sen. Mike Dunleavy, to remove a constitutional prohibition on direct public funding of private and religious schools, be removed in favor of a referral to the Senate Judiciary Committee — chaired by Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, who is cosponsoring the resolution.
Egan voted alongside minority Sens. Hollis French, Bill Wielechowski and Berta Gardner — all Anchorage Democrats — against Huggins’ recommendation, which passed 11-4 in the considerably depleted chamber.
Asked Monday afternoon whether, as Egan predicted, Egan’s membership in the caucus would be a subject of Tuesday’s caucus meetings, Coghill said it would be “up for discussion.”
“We all agreed that we would follow procedural votes,” Coghill added. “I don’t know if there was a conversation other than that, but I can tell you it will be a conversation in the caucus.”
But Coghill referred the matter beyond that to Huggins, whom he said put together the organization. And when asked about the issue minutes later, Huggins struck a much different tone than Coghill had.
“Dennis Egan is a good man,” Huggins said. “He’s our friend. I don’t know why anybody would want to talk about kicking him out of the caucus. I don’t even know of any conversations about talking about Dennis.”
Huggins dismissed the idea of Egan facing any other penalty for his vote.
“Dennis Egan’s a part of our caucus,” said Huggins. “We like him. He’s important for the geographic representation, and he’s a good man. Good friend of mine.”
Explaining his vote Monday, Egan said he objected because Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, chairman of the Education Committee and Huggins’ predecessor as Senate president, was out of town and unable to vote.
“You know, it was just procedural, but it really upset me,” Egan said.
Stevens was unaware of Huggins’ plan to change committee referrals, according to his chief of staff, Katrina Matheny. He was traveling out of state for much of last week and arrived back at the Alaska State Capitol Monday, but could not be reached for comment on this story.
While Egan grumbled about his decision to vote against the change — “I should have just shut up,” he said at one point — he did not back off his objection to it Monday.
“I shouldn’t have done it, and I apologized to them,” said Egan, seconds before adding, “I just think it’s unfair to the chair of the committee.”
Asked whether he would cast the same vote again, Egan replied, “I voted the same way twice.”
Huggins called the roll two times, with Egan voting against the change both times.
The Senate minority caucus released a statement Friday after the vote condemning the change and suggesting it is part of a pattern of controversial committee referrals.
Wielechowski said Monday that the S.J.R. 9 referral change “was just over the top.”
“I don’t know how you don’t refer a bill that has the biggest ramifications on education in our state since statehood to the Education Committee,” said Wielechowski. “Clearly, it’s an education bill.”
Wielechowski also remarked, “There are some very odd referrals that have no explanation … other than they’re being referred to committees where they’re more likely to get a favorable response.”
Asked about these controversial committee referrals Friday, and whether they are being done for political reasons, Huggins rejected the idea immediately.
“I don’t think in those terms,” Huggins said. “That’s certainly not the conclusion I would come to. … It’s certainly not one that I’ve thought about and quite frankly have little regard for.”
Of S.J.R. 9 specifically, Huggins explained, “To be quite frank, in my opinion and some other good American, good Alaskans’ opinions, it is a legal issue that requires extensive education conversation, that only creates an option, and that is in this case to change the Constitution, or to look at the question of the proposal to change the Constitution, and if that change happens — which is a legal action, right, and a vote of the people, of democracy — then you have the education conversation. I mean, changing the Constitution is not, quote, ‘an education issue.’”
Huggins then said he should not have referred the resolution to the Education Committee to begin with.
“Nobody likes to admit that they’re wrong,” said Huggins. “In my opinion, I made a mistake the first time around in referring it to Education. And when I looked at the implications, it appeared to me that it was a judicial issue that had a fiscal note associated with it, potentially, down the line, and that those were the two important elements in my mind.”
Wielechowski said he also agrees with Huggins that the resolution should go before the Judiciary and Finance committees, but he thinks it should be heard in the Education Committee as well. He said an Education Committee hearing would provide “a full vetting.”
Dunleavy, the resolution’s sponsor, said Monday afternoon that his resolution seeks to avoid ambiguity in the Constitution over what constitutes “the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.” He noted that the state already provides scholarships for students attending private religious colleges like Alaska Pacific University, a United Methodist liberal arts school in Anchorage.
“If you’re 19 years old and we want to go to APU, we’ll give you money to go there,” said Dunleavy. “If you’re a 15-year-old and want to go to, for lack of a better (example), Monroe Catholic (High School), we won’t give you the money to go there. … Either both are direct or neither are direct. Either both are indirect or neither are indirect. That’s the issue with this S.J.R. 9. The issue is, why is it O.K. for us to do this because you’re taller and you have hair on your face, but if you’re shorter and you’re younger, you can’t? It doesn’t say that in the Constitution.”
Dunleavy also said he was “not really surprised” by the referral change Friday. He said he does not mind which committee hears the resolution.
“I think it is a constitutional issue, but it doesn’t matter to me either way, as long as it gets public hearings,” Dunleavy said. “And it would get a public hearing whether it was in Judiciary, whether it was in State Affairs, whether it was in any committee, it’s going to get a public hearing.”
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.