Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D-Sitka) addresses a town hall meeting in the Sitka High School commons last week (2-21-19). He told the group that the legislature will draft a less ideological budget than the governor — but to expect an override battle in May if Gov. Dunleavy attempts to use his veto power to terminate funding for the Marine Highway System and other key state programs. “Everything until then is rearranging deck chairs,” said Kreiss-Tomkins. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Sitka Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins says that residents fearful over the governor’s proposed budget should focus their advocacy efforts on Republican senators, who will have the power to override the governor’s vetoes come May.

He told a gathering of over 100 Sitkans last Friday (2-21-19) in the high school commons that the legislature will likely ignore Gov. Dunleavy’s budget — which he called “ideological and apocalyptic” — and draft one of its own. The challenge will be getting 45 votes to override any attempt by the governor to veto the legislature’s work, and cut funding entirely to many state programs.

By now you’ve probably heard about Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget, which he released on February 13. Some of the highlights include completely defunding the Marine Highway System, Public Broadcasting, and the Department of Agriculture, to name but three, and reducing education funding in the state by $300 million.

That last cut alone could cost the Sitka School District close to a quarter of its budget — forcing layoffs of a possible 46 teachers, and the closure of one or more buildings.

But, in what amounted to a 20-minute civics lesson/pep talk, Sitka Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins told a large crowd gathered in the Sitka High Commons for a town hall meeting, that the legislature is going to call the governor’s bluff.

“To cut $1.5 billion out of the budget, or 30-percent of all General Fund spending, it’s an ideological and unrealistic endeavor,” said Kreiss-Tomkins. “And so we now have a document that reflects what that looks like. And it’s frankly apocalyptic for communities and the way of life that we all know.”

So the legislature will hammer out a budget that funds schools and ferries, and other key components of state government, and probably shaves the permanent fund dividend to somewhere around last year’s amount: $1,600. But the political inflection point, as Kreiss-Tomkins calls it, will come in May, when the governor has the relatively unique ability to veto any part of the legislature’s budget that he chooses.

It’s called the line-item veto, and it takes a super-majority of the legislature to override. That’s 45 out of the 60 representatives and senators in Juneau, all of whom have an equal vote in an override attempt.

Kreiss-Tomkins urged Sitkans to forget lobbying the governor, who staked his entire campaign on restoring the dividend, and instead focus their efforts on the legislators who may be among the 45 willing to override.

Kreiss-Tomkins hope the fight doesn’t get to that point, but he cautioned that it was possible.

“So I think it’s fairly safe to say if we find ourselves in this situation, a worst-case scenario which we should all assume and prepare for — the apocalyptic, line-item veto scenario — and we’re looking to get to that 45 of 60 super majority threshold,” he said, “I think it’s fair to say that every Democrat in the House and Senate will be there. I know the Independent from Ketchikan, Dan Ortiz, will be there. I’ve spoken with many Republicans already in the capitol who will be there. But the question is whether you’re going to get enough Republicans to get to 45.”

Kreiss-Tomkins said that the override battle would likely happen in May. “Everything until then,” he said, “is rearranging deck chairs.”

The audience — largely comprised of school district staff — had mixed feelings about the budget. Mt. Edgecumbe teacher Stephen Courtright, who has two children in the district, polled the audience to find out how many knew people who were considering leaving the state. At least half raised their hands.

Retired teacher Patty Dick, however, wasn’t going anywhere. She said, “Some want to leave, but we’re going to stay and fight.” Dick suggested that people meet after the presentation to organize into committees to work advocacy, a possible lawsuit over the failure of the state to meet its constitutional obligation to provide education, and finally a recall of Gov. Dunleavy.