Alaska lawmakers undo Palin's handiwork

She had refused $28 million in US stimulus funds, but the legislature voted on Monday to override her veto. Will that close the Palin era in Alaska politics?

By , Correspondent

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    State Rep. Bob Lynn (R) of Anchorage, passes protesters as he walks into the special legislative session in Anchorage, Alaska, Monday.
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Sarah Palin has been out of office for two weeks, but Alaskans remain caught in her celebrity wake.

In what some state lawmakers say they hope is their last tiff with the ex-governor, the legislature on Monday mustered the votes needed to override Ms. Palin’s controversial veto of $28 million in federal stimulus funding for energy-conservation projects.

The amount was only about 3 percent of the total stimulus package offered to Alaska, but Palin – the 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate who some see as staking out the far-right territory in a possible bid for the White House in 2012 – argued against accepting the funds, saying onerous federal strings were attached to them.

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“Legislators don’t need to play politics as usual and accept these funds and the ropes that come with them,” she said in a message on her Facebook page posted on the eve of Monday's session.

Supporters of the veto override took care to portray it as an in-state affair, a matter of shoring up an energy-conservation program that has been operating in Alaska since 1997. They rejected Palin’s arguments that accepting the money would require new, burdensome, non-Alaskan buildings codes imposed by the federal government.

“This was not a vote against Sarah Palin. This was a vote to bring money to Alaska to weatherize homes. Every other state has done that,” Senate President Gary Stevens, a Republican who supported the override, said afterward.

But it was hard to overlook the national spotlight trained on lawmakers as they took on their famous ex-governor.

Shortly before the special, one-day session began in an Anchorage convention hall, supporters of Palin and foes of President Obama – self-proclaimed antigovernment “Tea Baggers” – held a raucous rally, complete with signs, buttons, and T-shirts that blasted Mr. Obama and touted Palin as his successor in 2012.

“Do Not Suckle from the Federal Treasury as the Money is Narcotic,” read one protester’s sign. “Sarah was Right – We Don’t Need Stimulus,” read another.

“Where’s the Socialists? Where they at?” local talk-show radio host Eddie Burk called into a megaphone.

Inside the temporary legislative chambers, national politics seeped into the debate.

“I want to send a message to [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and the other busybodies in Washington, D.C., to keep their pea-picking hands off of how we do things here in Alaska,” said Rep. Bob Lynn (R), a loyal Palin supporter.

Within Alaska, a broad coalition of civic and business groups, including the Alaska Municipal League and the Alaska State Homebuilders Association, supported the veto override.

Palin’s resistance to federal energy assistance is a big reason for her unpopularity in Bethel and surrounding Yupik Eskimo villages in the tundra delta fanning out between the mouths of the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers, said one official from that southwestern Alaska city.

In Bethel, where fuel costs $6 a gallon, Palin is resented for her seeming indifference, said Eric Middlebrook, Bethel’s vice mayor. “It was obvious that her actions and her decisions were based on how it affected her national image,” said Mr. Middlebrook, who was visiting Anchorage on personal business and happened to ride a bicycle past the convention center and the pro-Palin demonstrators.

Ultimately, 45 of Alaska’s 60 lawmakers agreed with the municipal and business leaders who urged an override.

“We live in coldest-climate state in the union, and we should be setting the standard in efficiencies and the way energy is being utilized,” Sen. Lyman Hoffman (D) said during the debate.

The funding will help the poorest Alaskans, including many Native villagers in the bush who face the nation’s highest energy costs, said Rep. Max Gruenberg (D).

“Do we want them getting the [help] through the federal money, or do we want them getting the money from the president of Venezuela?” Mr. Gruenberg said, referring to fuel vouchers given to rural Alaskans by the government of Hugo Chávez.

Even with this battle over, it may be difficult for Alaskan affairs to emerge from Palin’s shadow, said one lawmaker.

“There is that Palin mystique. She’s very polarizing,” said Craig Johnson (R), who voted to uphold the veto but who has opposed the former governor on key oil and gas policies. Wading through the protesters lining the sidewalk, Mr. Johnson said he would prefer that Alaska be known for something other than Sarah Palin.

“I’d like to get beyond that and start talking about this great state and our resources,” he said. But that, he allowed, is unlikely in the near future. “As long as she has that draw, we’re going to be talking about her.”

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