Legislature overrides Palin veto of energy funds

Alaska to accept federal money after months of debate

Posted: Tuesday, August 11, 2009

ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Legislature narrowly voted to overturn former Gov. Sarah Palin's veto of $28.6 million in federal energy stimulus money, ensuring that Alaska will not become the only state in the nation to reject it.

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Al Grillo / The Associated Press
Al Grillo / The Associated Press

Juneau's legislative delegation joined with all others from Southeast to accept the energy money, despite the "strings" Palin claimed would be onerous.

Dueling protesters took the unusual opportunity of an Anchorage legislative session to noisily make their views heard outside the Egan Center. After the successful override vote, about half the audience broke into cheers.

The 45-14 vote just barely met the 75 percent override threshold.

The vote was the final act in a long-running battle in Alaska over the federal stimulus money. Palin originally said she would reject about a third of the nearly $1 billion headed to Alaska.

After that proved unpopular, she denied saying she intended to reject the money, and said she instead wanted to begin a discussion with the Legislature about it.

She hung firm on the final $28.6 billion, however, maintaining that accepting it would require the state to impose mandatory, unwanted energy efficiency building codes on Alaskans.

That claim was disputed by leading legislators in the House and Senate who studied the issue and said the strings weren't there.

Override opposition on Monday was led by the few remaining Palin supporters in the Legislature.

Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, was among them. He looked at the rules and concluded there were strings, but acknowledged others could differ.

"I suppose, like beauty, the definition of strings is in the eye of the beholder," he said.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, co-chair of the Senate Resources Committee, was on the prevailing side.

"The only strings attached are those of responsibility and accountability," he said.

Legislators spent months analyzing the requirements that came with the money, both during the session and after Palin's vetoes. The majority didn't see the onerous strings that Palin saw.

Not everybody was convinced, however.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said that even if there was a building code requirement, it was one that Alaska already met and simply imposed common sense measure such as double pane windows, insulation and weather stripping that reduce homeowners' heating bills.

"The facts seem to paint a picture that's much different from the rhetoric," he said.

A letter from the U.S. Department of Energy assured Alaska that the feared strings were not there, but the critics dismissed that statement as an opinion from a "low-level bureaucrat" and a "functionary."

Anchorage Republican Rep. Mike Hawker, co-chair of the House Finance Committee, said the letter was the opinion of the Department itself, and had been reviewed by its general counsel before being sent.

Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, said she was unsure how she was going to vote on the override until the session itself. Hawker's argument was what persuaded her to vote to override the governor, she said.

The help the stimulus money would provide to Alaska residents is important, said Anchorage Republican Sen. Lesil McGuire, co-chair of the Resources Committee.

"We have the highest energy prices in the nation, and our people are suffering," she said.

Those who backed Palin's veto, as well as many of the anti-override protesters, said the vote was a political message about the stimulus plan led by President Obama and other Democratic leaders.

"I want to send a message to (U.S. House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi and the other busybodies in Washington, D.C., to keep their pea-picking hands off how we do things here in Alaska," said Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage.

Hawker disputed that.

"The vote to accept is not a referendum on the stimulus itself," he said.

Hawker said the stimulus was going to be spent somewhere, and the current vote was to decide how much of Alaska's income tax dollars came back to the state.

Immediately after the override vote Monday, Gov. Sean Parnell sent a letter to Energy Secretary Stephen Chu providing the required assurances that the money would be accepted and spent on appropriate energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.

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

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