AKLEG Recap, Day 63: Senate Dems challenge Permanent Fund Corp.’s investment in Russia

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

This story has been updated to correct a blurb about Anchorage’s vote-by-mail system. An earlier version referred to fraud when we intended to be talking about the single reported case of some ballots being stolen. Fraud and theft are very, very different things, and we apologize for the error. 

Day 63 of the session is in the books. It was apparently mostly all about the House. Big-ticket resolutions passed the House, the House Finance Committee featured a spot of drama and representatives are preparing for a marathon week on the operating budget. Here’s what happened and what to look forward to.

Just 27 days left to go in the regular session.

Another Sense of the Senate

Senate Democrats have had plenty of success so far in making political hay out of politically popular, ultimately doomed floor votes. They’ve forced multiple votes on a resolution that would put the current PFD statute into the Alaska Constitution and another to bring forward a Sense of the Senate (essentially a strongly worded letter) telling the feds to get their hands off the state’s voter-approved marijuana industry.

On Monday, the Democrats forced another vote on a Sense of the Senate. This time it would have urged the Permanent Fund Corporation to steer clear of investments in Russian entities that have been sanctioned by the United States. This, of course, comes amid heightened scrutiny over Russia’s involvement in interfering in the 2016 presidential elections and continued concern about the country’s plans for the upcoming midterms.

Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Anchorage, argued against the Sense of the Senate, citing a letter of opposition from the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation, that the current statutes don’t allow such a change in fund management.

“The Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation does not have investment authority for a socially driven investment approach other than the in-state preference,” she said. “The Sense of the Senate before us today belongs in the form of a bill to change Alaska state statute.”

The motion wasn’t tabled this time, but instead voted down on its own right on a 14N-4Y vote. All Republicans and Democratic Sen. Lyman Hoffman voted against the measure. Democratic Sens. Begich (who offered the motion), Gardner, Wielechowski and Egan voted for the measure. Sens. Stedman and Olson were excused.

Wilson walks out

Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development Commissioner Mike Navarre gave a presentation to the House Finance Committee on Monday about Alaska’s economy. The purpose of the meeting was to essentially debunk this idea that economic development and diversification alone are enough to save the state’s financial situation.

Navarre used an example of a hypothetical factory that just so happened to be in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. It showed that its local property taxes would help pay for the increased demand for services (like schools, law enforcement and roads), but the state would be in the hole for a significant increase in K-12 funding without any source of new revenue.

It’s an argument, essentially, for something like an income tax to link economic growth to the state services they’ll rely on.

However, the numbers for this hypothetical plant also looked roughly similar to the expected growth in borough tied to the incoming stationing of a squadron of F-35s. That was too much for Wilson, who picked up and left before Navarre’s presentation even began.

“If you took factory and put military in there instead, we would basically be saying on page 29 doing the math that we couldn’t afford the military because of a $30 million loss and I’m not willing to send that message to the military,” she said. “So I will not be staying for this presentation.”

Navarre tried to walk back the example a bit during the presentation, insisting that it was purely hypothetical and not meant to make the case if something is worth it or not, but to draw attention to the fact that the state government is overly reliant on oil when the economy is shifting.

“Our economy is diversifying,” he said. “Our revenue is not.”

House approves pro-marijuana resolution

The House had a much less conflicted time standing up for the state’s voter-approved marijuana industry than its counterparts on Monday when it unanimously passed House Joint Resolution 21. The resolution, which is authored by Fairbanks Democrat Rep. David Guttenberg, tells the feds to back off and also suggests they reconsider its listing of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance (a category that includes heroin and ecstacy).

The resolution comes as a response to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to revoke the Cole Memo, an Obama-era Department of Law guidance that gave states more leeway to operate legalized marijuana industries while focusing federal resources on illegal trafficking and underage use. A similar effort in the Senate–first through a Sense of the Senate and later through a Senate Majority-written resolution–has been more friendly so Sessions’ decision.

Alaska Native languages resolution approved

The House also approved a resolution calling on Gov. Bill Walker to declare a linguistic emergency to protect and preserve Alaska Native languages that are on the brink of extinction. The measure doesn’t call for specific responses, but is more of a statement of position for the Legislature about the importance of helping long-oppressed Alaska Native language and culture survive. It passed 34-4. Reps. Eastman, Wilson, Neuman and Tilton voted against the measure. Reps. Wool and Rauscher had excused absences.

Operating budget underway

The House is set to begin amendments on the operating budget today. If the House Finance Committee’s amendment process is anything to go by, it’s going to be a very long week for the House. Nearly 200 amendments (both minority and majority) were offered during the two weeks the House Finance Committee was (mostly) working on amendments. Committees are already noting that their plans for the next few days might be sidelined for the floor sessions.

Another year for cocktails, maybe

Sen. Peter Micciche has been working on an overhaul of Alaska’s alcohol laws as part of a larger state-driven effort to update the state’s laws. It’s been in the works for the last few years and during the last Legislature produced a measure easing the penalties for underage drinking from a misdemeanor to a violation (with the thinking being it’d be more likely to be enforced and change behavior). In addition to containing a plethora of rewrites regarding commercial alcohol licenses, it also appears to be the chosen vehicle for a fix relating to cocktails served at distilleries.

The standalone measure stalled out in the House Labor and Commerce Committee where Reps. Kito and Wool (a bar owner across the road from a distillery) have voiced opposition to the idea, and there’s been a fair amount of speculation that a fix could come as part of Micciche’s bill.

The bad news is that Micciche doesn’t seem particularly confident there’ll be the time or effort to get to his bill this session. At the Senate Majority’s news conference he said the budget will take the priority and that his bill has already taken four years so five isn’t out of the cards.

Senate Bill 76 is up for public testimony at 1:30 p.m. today in in the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee and again at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday.

What we’re reading

  • The USS Juneau has been found by a research team funded by Microsoft co-owner Paul Allen. The Navy light cruiser was torpedoed during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942, taking the lives of more than 600. Read: Philanthropist Allen announces discovery of USS Juneau via KTOO.
  • Anchorage’s first-ever vote-by-mail system is underway and it’s hitting a few bumps. Turns out you need to keep your voter registration up-to-date, but there’s also been one case of mail theft (the ballots have already been voided so there’s no chance of voter fraud). Election watchers aren’t too worried. Read: Anchorage navigates bumps in first mail-ballot election, including a case of mail theft via Anchorage Daily News.

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