Legislators discuss overriding Palin vetoes

Millions in stimulus funds for Alaska in the balance

Posted: Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Alaska legislators are discussing an attempt to override Gov. Sarah Palin's budget vetoes, which included a controversial rejection of $28.6 million in energy money.

That's a difficult challenge requiring a 75 percent majority vote in both houses of the Legislature; such votes are rarely held.

Palin maintained that accepting the federal energy stimulus money for Alaska would require pushing to adopt a statewide building code; legislative leaders said it did no such thing. In reality, many municipal governments already meet the building code requirements, and it's likely the state already fulfills or is on its way to fulfilling the requirements, legislators said.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said legislators are talking among themselves about the possibility of overriding some or all of Palin's state budget-related vetoes.

"There's a lot of discussions going on right now with our caucus members," Chenault said.

He's also looking for input from minority leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, and Senate leaders, he said.

Legislators are asking each other if "they want to override all the vetoes, or just the energy veto, just what do they want to do," he said.

He said he personally is leaning toward an override, but his constituents are mixed. Chenault said he expects a conclusion during informal discussions in the next few weeks.

Kerttula said she's supportive of an override, and expects her Democratic caucus to be so as well.

"I think the governor is completely wrong in her statement about how onerous it would be," she said.

Legislators spent much of the session studying the stimulus money, and Palin's concerns about "strings" attached requiring the adoption of cumbersome new codes. Most said they came to the conclusion that there were no such strings attached.

Palin's decision to veto the energy money left Rep. Jay Ramras "dumbstruck," he told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

"I don't know how to respond. It must be nice to live in the Mat-Su Valley where you have the lowest natural gas prices in the United States. The rest of Alaska is struggling, and now they can't access that $28 million," the Fairbanks Republican told the newspaper.

Palin blocked acceptance of only a small portion of nearly $1 billion in federal stimulus money available to the state. Palin originally said she was going to block acceptance of one-third or more of the money available to Alaska.

Former House Speaker Mike Bradner, and now publisher of Bradner's Legislative Digest, said Palin's veto may have been more of a political statement than opposition to the funds.

"I think she wanted to have a little face-saving, after all the noise she made about stimulus funds," he said on public television's Anchorage Edition program.

Palin backed off her sweeping rejection stance when the money proved popular with legislators.

"The majority of larger communities already have energy codes in place or are in the process of adopting them," said Sen. Lesil McGuire, chair of the Senate Energy Committee.

Chenault said his own constituents are split on what to do about accepting the energy money.

"Our grandkids are going to be paying this bill so we might as well see some of it," some told Chenault.

Chenault said others constituents said, "I wish you guys wouldn't have took any of it."

Palin vetoed a total of $80.3 million out a larger package of budget bills. Palin did not strike anything from the $8.7 billion operating budget. Most of the vetoes applied to the $1.87 billion capital projects budget.

State Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said the energy money did not come with the strings Palin claimed, but cautioned that the three-fourths majority override is difficult to reach.

"A veto override is very difficult to get," he said.

Palin also vetoed some projects in Stedman's district that were funded by the cruise ship head tax. That money gets collected whether spent or not, and has been accumulating in state coffers.

Stedman said he'd like to see those vetoes overridden as well, but wasn't sure if there was statewide support for that.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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