JUNEAU -- The Alaska Senate's newly-empowered conservative majority asserted that power Friday as it pushed a controversial school choice amendment through a legislative committee.
Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, raised the ire of critics when he pulled Senate Joint Resolution 9, which would ask voters to amend the Alaska Constitution to allow public money to go to religious schools, from the Senate's Education Committee.
It was Huggins himself who had originally assigned the constitutional amendment resolution to the Education Committee, but he soon came to the realization that he shouldn't have done that.
"I personally made a mistake," he said Friday.
Democrats in the Senate objected to pulling what they saw as an education measure away from the Education Committee and forced a vote on what they saw as an unprecedented move.
"This has tremendous education implications, it clearly belongs in Education," said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage.
Huggins disagreed. "It's not really an education issue," he said.
On a party line vote, SJR9 was pulled from the Education Committee, and sent on to the Judiciary Committee, its next committee of referral. That committee is chaired by Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole. He urged members of the Republican-led majority caucus to support Huggins on the bill, of which he is a co-sponsor.
The Senate Education Committee is chaired by Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak. He served as Senate President last session before being unseated by Huggins, with the assistance of newly elected Republicans this session.
The move to pull a bill from committee over the objection of its chairman is unprecedented, said Tim Lamkin, Stevens' chief of staff. Stevens is out of town, attending a Council of State Governments meeting in Kentucky.
Lamkin said he'd just told Stevens what had happened.
"He was quite surprised that Sen. Huggins would remove it without at least the courtesy of a heads-up," Lamkin said.
Moving a bill without a chairman's consent hasn't been done in recent years, and was never cone in Stevens' four years as Senate President, Lamkin said.
"Sen. Stevens didn't operate that way," he said.
Coghill, though, said the move was justified. Allowing state money to be used for private religious schools, something now specifically prohibited by the Alaska Constitution, is not an education issue unless it gets on the ballot.
"It is only an education issue if it passes," Coghill said.
Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, fought the action in the Senate and called that contention "ludicrous."
The issue of school choice is likely to divide both houses of the Legislature this year, if statements made by House lawmakers Friday are any indication.
"School choice, that's real big in our caucus," said Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, chair of the House Education Committee. "Our parents are clamoring for school choice," she said.
A Democratic member of the majority, Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, said that's not what he was hearing in Southwest Alaska.
"My constituents have grave concerns about that," he said.
It takes two-thirds votes in both the House and Senate to refer constitutional amendments to voters. In the Senate, that means 14 votes. Friday's vote to uphold Huggins action was 11-4, with Stevens and several others absent.
Late Friday, the leader of the National Education Association-Alaska weighed in on the Huggins move.
"With such a proposed dramatic change to Alaska's educational landscape, it is stunning that Senate President Huggins would decide that the Senate Education Committee would not even get to hear the bill," NEA-Alaska President Ron Fuhrer said in a prepared statement. "This action holds Alaskans in very low regard. If Alaskans are to consider rolling back 50 years of constitutional language, there should be ample opportunities for public comment and to vet the idea of vouchers thoroughly."
Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com