Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, who was absent during a vote last week that saw the Senate swap a polarizing resolution’s referral to his Education Committee with a referral to the Judiciary Committee, criticized the proposal and needled fellow Republicans in a floor speech Tuesday.
Stevens rose to speak on Senate Resolution 9, which would place a constitutional amendment before voters on public funds for education, during the “special orders” segment of Tuesday’s Senate floor session. He commented on the committee referral change being made while he was in Kentucky Friday.
“It appears as if I missed an eventful and truly fun-filled Friday,” Stevens said dryly. “And lots of folks had the opportunity to speak on the issue, except me. There I was in Lexington, Mr. President, chairing you a Council of State Governments meeting, totally oblivious — clueless in Kentucky, one might say,” Stevens added, to general laughter.
Stevens then grew more serious.
“I have never held a bill in a committee I’ve chaired because I did not like it or simply because I had the power as the chairman to do that,” said Stevens. “I made it clear that if the Education Committee had a resolution of any sort, it would be carefully considered, then moved along to the next committee.”
Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, introduced S.J.R. 9, which would remove a constitutional prohibition on public funds being spent “for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution” if voters approve the constitutional amendment that it proposes.
While Dunleavy could not be reached for comment on this story, his staff pointed to his sponsor statement on S.J.R. 9, in which he said passage of the resolution “clarifies the question on the constitutionality of current educational practices” and “allows the voters to decide whether to maintain or abolish the restrictions on the use of public dollars for the education of children.”
In his speech, Stevens framed that voter decision as a “separation of church and state” issue.
“Mr. President, I have no objection to the resolution moving ahead, though I don’t personally agree with it, and I would, if eventually it makes it to the ballot box, probably vote against it based on our constitutional principle of separation of church and state,” said Stevens. “You see, Mr. President, I really like the First Amendment of the Constitution. I like it a lot. In fact, I really like the Bill of Rights to our Constitution. … All 10 (amendments) are crucial, and if one is taken away, our way of life would be much different than it is today.”
The United States Constitution does not contain the term “separation of church and state,” although contemporaneous writings from its drafters refer to the principle. The First Amendment reads in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Dunleavy said Monday that there is a constitutional question as to whether state scholarships for students attending private religious colleges violate the Alaska Constitution as written. He suggested it is inconsistent for the state to offer those scholarships but not allow vouchers for families seeking state aid to send their children to religious schools.
“For me, there’s a question as to the current practices (that) we’re doing — is it constitutional?” Dunleavy said. “And if it is, why can’t that be extended to everybody? Why just a certain group? That’s the question. Does this bill, if passed, open up Taliban schools and religious schools and private Edison schools? It does nothing of the sort. Can conversations occur? Yes, they can. But it doesn’t open it up.”
Stevens went on to quote both former President James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights, and — more mischievously — former Lt. Gov. Jack Coghill, delegation to the Alaska Constitutional Convention and father of Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole. The younger Coghill is the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a cosponsor of S.J.R. 9.
“These are the words he spoke on the floor of the Constitutional Convention, meaningful and heartfelt,” said Stevens after reading a quote from former Lt. Gov. Coghill supporting the restriction of public funding of education to the public education system. To chuckles, he quipped, “And as a father, I can sympathize with the senior Coghill. I know how distressing it can be to have a wayward son who does not appear to agree with you in the wisdom of the ages.”
After the Senate adjourned for the day, Majority Leader Coghill remarked, laughing, “I’m always glad when my dad is quoted.”
Coghill added, “A lot of what he said is true. I mean, the context has changed significantly down through the years. Those were back in the days when the (Bureau of Indian Affairs) schools were kind of the big issue in Alaska … and he was pushing that we need to take care of our own education needs. And so the sectarian issue was then the BIA or … boarding schools put together by religious organizations, and the state was fighting to establish its own education system.”
Earlier Tuesday, the Senate majority caucus released a statement quoting Stevens and Coghill to announce that Stevens’ Education Committee will hold “informational meetings” on school vouchers concurrent with Coghill’s Judiciary Committee examining S.J.R. 9 specifically.
Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, who is in charge of bill referrals in the Senate, was asked about the Education Committee’s role on S.J.R. 9 in a press conference immediately after the Senate session Tuesday.
Huggins responded in part, “We have agreed upon if there remain substantial education issues, then the question of will it be referred to Education will be open.”
Carolyn Kuckertz, a legislative staffer with the Senate majority caucus, said Huggins was unavailable to comment further Tuesday, but said he expressed the belief that Stevens “is definitely entitled to have his own opinion, and he has some very good points.”
Stevens spoke more about his floor speech late Tuesday afternoon. He said he was not upset about the referral change, but added, “I was surprised that it was taken out of committee while I was gone.”
Stevens, who was Senate president until the collapse of the coalition he led after last November’s elections, said he believes Huggins’ decision to change the referrals without informing him was not “mean-spirited” but was rather a “simple oversight.”
Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, ignited controversy himself when he voted with minority Democrats to oppose changing the committee referrals Friday. That vote appears to have violated an agreement within the caucus to vote together on procedural issues.
But Stevens spoke warmly of Egan Tuesday, much as Huggins had the day before when asked about the Juneau senator’s wayward vote.
“I appreciate Egan’s support,” Stevens said. “He’s a fine person.”
For Egan’s part, he gave Stevens’ floor speech a favorable review.
“I liked it,” Egan said. “And I’m pleased with what he did, and I agree with what the senator said. And I applaud him for coming forward. And I got all kinds of crap for trying to stick up for him.”
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at email@example.com.