Without necessary votes, Senate leadership pulls controversial education amendment

Sen. Mike Dunleavy, chairman of the Senate Labor and Commerce committee, listens during a meeting of the committee, Feb. 18, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Sen. Mike Dunleavy, chairman of the Senate Labor and Commerce committee, listens during a meeting of the committee, Feb. 18, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Over the past two legislative sessions, conservative lawmakers have prioritized an amendment that would allow public money to be spent at private schools. Wednesday was supposed to be the grand showdown, where the State Senate would take a vote on it. The measure did not even make it to the floor, because it did not have enough support to pass.

For the past few days, staffers, reporters, and lawmakers alike have made a pastime of counting the votes for Senate Joint Resolution 9.

It’s rare that legislation will go on the floor calendar unless it’s guaranteed to pass. But as an amendment to the Alaska Constitution, SJR9 needs two-thirds approval to go forward, and a sizable contingent of Democrats and moderate Republicans have vocally opposed it.

As many suspected, the support just was not there. After delaying the floor session Wednesday for a couple of hours to talk strategy, leadership announced they would hold the bill in the legislative limbo that is the Senate Rules Committee instead of bringing it out for a vote.

Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Mat-Su Republican who is sponsoring the bill, says that does not mean the bill is dead.

“I know some folks may look at this and say this is a way of politely killing the bill,” says Dunleavy. “That’s not my intention at all, and that’s not the intention of leadership. It’s just getting some additional information and having some additional discussion with folks this week.”

Dunleavy says he wants information on the legality of education programs the state is already offering, like the Alaska Performance Scholarship. But he would not elaborate any more on that information except for to say he thinks it could turn a couple votes.

Dunleavy adds he wants to see the amendment back on the Senate schedule as soon as possible. And he thinks there’s value in having a floor debate even if there is not certainty a measure will pass.

“You want to be careful that there’s not a gaming of the system, where all the decisions are made off the floor. There should be floor debates. There should be floor votes. And there will be votes that pass, and there will be votes that fail.”

Sen. Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican who has been a firm opponent of the measure, says it’s going to be an uphill battle for those who want it to pass. While the amendment may not be technically dead, it’s arguably comatose.

“Clearly they didn’t have the votes,” says Stevens. “They needed 14 votes. And I talked to several members of the caucus who all oppose it, and I think at least five members of our 15-member caucus are opposed to it.”

Stevens says pulling SJR 9 allows Senate leadership to keep the measure alive and save a little bit of face. Like Dunleavy, he would not have minded having a discussion on the floor about what the measure means for the state. While Dunleavy argues that SJR 9 could expand options for students and their parents, Stevens is worried it would lead to an expensive voucher system and drain resources from public schools. He was prepared to speak to that on Wednesday.

“The debate is good, and we should do that more. I think there’s sort of a tendency though on the part of the majority caucus not to want to put something on the floor and have it fail. It’s sort of a sign of weakness. And very seldom does that happen in this body, very seldom do you see either the House or the Senate put something on the floor when they know it’s going to fail.”

Out of more than a thousand bills introduced since 2011, only three pieces of legislation have failed on the floor, according to data compiled by Gavel Alaska.

A companion to SJR 9 has also been introduced in the House, but it has yet to come to a vote in that chamber. Any amendment to the Alaska Constitution needs two-thirds approval from both chambers of the Legislature and then support from a majority of registered voters in the state.