AKLEG Recap, Day 44: Senate Majority kills effort to move the PFD closer to the ballot

Sen. Bill Wielechowski (center) talks with Sen. Tom Begich during a break during a 2017 Senate floor session. (Photo by Alaska Senate Democrats)

With Day 44 of the session behind us, we’ve reached the halfway point of the session. The dividend continues to be a hot issue, the House is taking a look at gun violence and the budget continues to come together in the House. Here’s what happened and what to look forward to.

Just 46 days left in the regular session.

Enshrine the dividend

During Wednesday’s Senate floor session, Sen. Bill Wielechowski made a motion to force his Senate Joint Resolution 1 out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has yet to hold a single hearing on the legislation. The resolution would put a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the PFD on the ballot for voters. He said he’s requested multiple hearings in the committee, but has yet to receive one.

The resolution had already advanced from the Senate State Affairs Committee early last year when the committee was chaired by former Wasilla Sen. Mike Dunleavy, who’s since quit the Legislature to pursue a the Republican nomination for governor. The lone “do not pass” recommendation came from  Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee where the resolution has languished.

The vote on advancing the measure out of judiciary and into the Senate Finance Committee failed on a caucus-line vote of 14-6 (which could come to be an important vote when the Senate is staring down a constitutional budget reserve vote). Caucus-less Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Wasilla, voted with minority Democrats in support of the measure. Hughes left the majority last year mirroring a similar departure from the majority by Dunleavy over the budget and cuts to the PFD.

Newly confirmed Mat-Su Sen. Mike Shower voted in favor of keeping the bill in committee, along with Mat-Su Sen. David Wilson, who was the lone Mat-Su senator to remain in the majority after Dunleavy and Hughes departed.


Wielechowski failed to fully restore the dividend with a legal challenge that reached the Alaska Supreme Court last year. He’s also recently been spotted meeting with Mark Begich, who also recently penned an op-ed on enshrining the permanent fund in the constitution, at a coffee shop, sparking the latest round of rumors that Begich and potentially Wielechowski, are considering a bid for the governor’s office.

No news is good news

Rep. Harriet Drummond gave a touching special order speech during the House floor session about the good work done to avert a potential shooting in 2015 at Anchorage’s West High School. She attributed it the school’s trained and armed community police officers stationed at the school and the school administration’s handling of the incident. She urged fellow legislators to keep incidents like that in mind as they head into the budgeting process.

She noted that the mascot of West High School, the Eagles, is the same as Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and teachers were killed in a shooting two weeks ago.

Gun control heard

We’ll have a full story on the hearing about House Bill 75 out this morning, but for the purpose of today’s roundup here’s the highlights. The legislation would allow immediate family members and law enforcement to ask a judge to temporarily remove a person’s guns if that person is believed to be at immediate risk of harming themselves or others. Public testimony was broadly in support of the measure, which also happens to be the only gun control measure in the House (it was introduced early last year). And as much as the focus is on school shootings, the measure will very likely be much more about suicide prevention. Much of the testimony came from people who had lost family members to gun suicides. Republicans didn’t mount universal opposition to the measure, and some like Rep. Chuck Kopp offered questions that would potentially strengthen the measure, like allowing a non-married partner to also seek a petition.

A budget correction

Yesterday’s summary of House Finance Committee operating budgets said the House Finance Committee voted to put into place retroactive inflation proofing for the Permanent Fund by transferring some $1.45 billion from the earnings reserve to the corpus of the fund. The committee did the opposite, actually deleting the governor’s proposal to make such a move. It did, as we accurately reported, also delete the inflation proofing for the upcoming fiscal year.

Budget testimony schedule

The House Finance Committee will open public testimony on the operating budget today:

  • 1:00 – 3:00 PM Homer, Kenai, Ketchikan, Kodiak, Mat-Su, & Seward
  • 3:15 – 4:45 PM Utqiagvik, Dillingham, & Fairbanks
  • 4:15 – 4:45 PM Off Net sites

Friday

  • 1:00 – 2:30 PM Juneau
  • 2:45 – 3:45 PM Sitka, Petersburg, Delta Junction, Unalaska, Glennallen, & Tok
  • 4:00 – 5:00 PM Bethel, Cordova, Kotzebue, Nome, Valdez, & Wrangell
  • 5:00 – 6:00 PM Off Net sites

Saturday

  • 9:00 – 10:00 AM Off Net sites
  • 10:15 – 11:45 AM Anchorage
  • 12:00 – 1:00 PM Off Net sites

Comfort or caution?

There’s still confusion over just what, if anything, happened with Alaska’s election system that would drive three unnamed intelligence officials to tell NBC News that the state was “compromised” by Russian hackers. Since the news broke on Tuesday, the Division of Elections has refuted the story and a Department of Homeland Security spokesman also said there was no truth to the NBC report.

There’s plenty of vagueness about the NBC report that lead us to be skeptical about its claims in the first place, but the whole story was built around uncertainty in the first place, suggesting that the feds knew about the hacking but chose not to tell the states for some reason.

Either way, there are plenty of conclusions to be drawn from the incident and they played out on the Senate floor on Wednesday in dueling special orders from Sen. Gary Stevens and Wielechowski.

“It would be alarming if true, but at this point I can’t see how it’s true,” Stevens said, after describing the incident and reading parts of Department of Elections Director Josie Bahnke’s statement. “We have a really wonderful election system with a paper trail. … That piece of paper is still there so in ALaska, unlike many states, we can go back to that paper ballot. … Let’s not frighten the public, but face the truth and not believe some of the statements we’ve seen in the press.”

Wielechowski rose to renew his call for the Senate to conduct hearings on the issue.

“I appreciate the previous speaker’s comments,” he said, later adding, “When we know there’s an assault on our democracy–when we know there’s a foreign nation that’s trying to actively assault our Democracy in 2018–I question sticking our heads in the sand and saying nothing happened. We have an election in eight months, we have an obligation to ensure that our system is not going to be impacted. … Let’s have a hearing, let’s find out exactly what happened. We have conflicting information, that’s what we do in a Democracy.”

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