The normally dry subject of committee referrals is creating a bit of a stir in the Capitol.
Last week, a group of five senators introduced a resolution to amend the Alaska Constitution to allow for a school voucher program. The measure was supposed to be heard in the education committee. That is, until it suddenly wasn’t, as Sen. Gary Stevens – a Republican from Kodiak and chair of the education committee – discovered while traveling in Kentucky on business.
“I learned an important lesson last Friday. Never, never, never leave town. No matter how calm and uneventful you think things will be in your absence, don’t believe it. Stay in Juneau until the bitter end,” Stevens said.
The voucher resolution was removed from his committee, and will instead be heard in judiciary and finance. A similar resolution to strike language from the Constitution that prohibits direct funding of religious school stalled in education during the last legislature.
During the Senate floor session on Tuesday, Stevens announced that he would hold hearings on the issue of vouchers, even if his committee wasn’t processing the measure. He described it as the “most momentous education issue” that he had encountered during his years in the legislature, and he also said he didn’t believe in bottling up legislation just because he didn’t support it.
“I have no objection to the resolution moving ahead, though I don’t personally agree with it, and I would, if eventually it makes it to the ballot box, probably vote against it based on our constitutional principle of separation of church and state. You see, Mr. President, I really like the first amendment to the Constitution. I like it a lot,” Stevens said.
When talking about the constitutional question of funding religious schools, Stevens quoted James Madison to back up his position. He also cited Alaskan founding father, Jack Coghill – former lieutenant governor and father of Sen. John Coghill, a cosponsor of the voucher resolution and the current judiciary chair.
Coghill, a Republican from Fairbanks, said in a later conversation that he didn’t mind having his father’s arguments used against his own. He also said that he thinks vouchers are an education issue, but that the resolution should come through judiciary first.
“So, what Sen. Stevens is saying is accurate and probably one of the debates. But we can’t even have that debate until we ask the people, ‘Can we have that debate?’ And he says it’s unconstitutional. Well, he’s right in that our Constitution now has that barrier,” Coghill said.
This isn’t the first time this session that committee referrals have been questioned. Last week, Senate Democrats objected that a bill defining what qualifies as a “medically necessary” abortion was not referred to the health and human services committee and that a measure concerning the development of a hydroelectric site in a state park was not directed to resources.
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