WASILLA — The technical session convened at Wasilla Middle School on Thursday as proclaimed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy was much calmer than that on Wednesday, despite the dozens of children in the gym.
Legislators in Wasilla are confident in the constitution and statutes and also actively engaging with those in Juneau, despite the disagreement over special session location.
“We’re trying to lawfully go about this and try to come up and be the problem solvers. I mean I understand that the appearance is that they have the chambers down there and they’re taking votes on an electronic board, but the constitution and the statutes are saying that right now today the session is here and I’m willing to work with my colleagues in Juneau and work with the governor to resolve all of these issues,” said Sen. Mia Costello.
As the session began at 11 a.m., Costello was joined by Representatives George Rauscher, Mark Neuman and David Eastman and Senator Shelley Hughes. Hughes said that there were still 22 legislators meeting in Wasilla, and would make appearances at WMS to engage with the half-full gym of residents wanting to have their voices heard. Hughes’ Chief of Staff Buddy Whitt gave a safety briefing to the crowd prior to the start of the technical session. Whitt stood in front of a line near halfcourt on the gym floor. Instead of bleacher seating for spectators with a house and senate side of the gym under each basket, the gym was arranged with chairs for the public on one side and tables for legislators on the other with the bleachers pushed back.
“Some folks came in and used their full right to freedom of speech and we appreciate the rights and freedoms that we have here in this nation, but I’m going to ask that you please be respectful of the legislators that are here and of the other Alaskans that are here. Everyone wants an opportunity to express themselves,” said Whitt.
There were no attempts to cross over the line, save for one toddler who crawled past and was quickly scooped up by their mother. The chairs ran out as the public filtered in, and one corner of the gym served as a massive play area for the dozens of toddlers that had come to see the technical session. The Growing Alaskan Leaders announced a “Tyke Takeover” at Thursday’s special session. While many moms carried toddlers, Jennifer Eastman carried her children as they got to watch their father at work in their hometown.
“I think it’s a good opportunity for them to kind of see how everything’s going and they like to be able to go to work with dad and see him and meet people as often as they can and it’s nice to be able to do that at home and not just in Juneau,” Jennifer Eastman said.
Eastman remained optimistic that the 60 chairs could be full of legislators by Friday morning.
“You might see 60 people in them. That is to be determined, of course but would not surprise me in the slightest,” Eastman said.
Eastman hopes that the 39 legislators that include Wasilla Senator David Wilson who joined the Juneau session on Thursday will meet in Wasilla to take action. Eastman was displeased with the sit-in protest on Wednesday. Rep. George Rauscher was also displeased with Wednesday’s protest and said that the legislators in Wasilla would not bow to bullies.
“I think you saw some Democrat activists who wanted to get their message out at the expense of the public and the expense of the process and unfortunately I think they were egged on by some of the Democrat legislators in Juneau and maybe Republicans as well who have very little respect for the process and don’t have any qualms about showing that,” said Eastman.
In her brief speech to the members of the public on the other side of the gym at WMS, Costello hoped to provide some hope for a solution.
“We are working on a proposal to provide a solution to both the challenge about the location and also the issues that we need to address,” Costello said. “We are also willing to work with our colleagues in Juneau. We have been reaching out to them, we have been reaching out to the governor and we are working on our proposal to provide to all of the parties so that we can help be a part of the solution. And with that we will go ahead and adjourn the session.”
Legislators in Wasilla have taken issue with caucus members in Juneau. Hughes was not allowed to teleconference into a Monday caucus meeting. She notified Senate President Cathy Giessel that she had to attend a lunch scheduled with the Wasilla Chamber at noon, but Giessel would not move the meeting.
“I was disappointed in that decision but it is what it is and that was Monday and now this is Thursday,” said Hughes.
Hughes hoped that the legislators would be able to find a funding source for the capital budget in the near future.
“We passed it in the Senate knowing that a funding source fix was desperately needed so I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of argument,” said Hughes.
Hughes was proud to say that none of the legislators in Wasilla are accepting per diem, and that the technical sessions being held in the gym are costing zero state dollars. Hughes also stated boldly that the legislators in Wasilla are not hiding.
“There’s no one taking per diem here. There’s not a penny of state dollars for anything we’ve set up here, not a finger lifted by legislative affairs. This was all done by us and the school district and the city and the chamber,” Hughes said. “Are they putting on a show? maybe they don’t really want to override.”