Green Button: Eight winners and some honorable mentions from the 2018 session

(Shoddy photo illustration by Matt Buxton with a photo by the Alaska Senate Majority)

Let’s get this out of the way first and foremost, this list seemed like it would be a lot more fun to put together and write than it ended up being. The legislature had a surprisingly smooth and productive end of session, but in retrospect there’s still not a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings emanating from the 2018 session. The biggest win of the session, probably, is that it’s over.

Still, we promised a winners list so here goes.

(The losers will be out in a post tomorrow afternoon. Feel free to send your nominations to me at matt@midnightsunak.com.)

Clean-air advocates

Just a few years ago and Senate Bill 63, the statewide workplace smoking ban, wouldn’t have been much more than a feel-good piece of legislation to be tossed aside during one of the House’s many smoking break at-eases. This year, a change in House leadership gave a new opportunity for Soldotna Sen. Peter Micciche to see his smoke-free workplaces bill passed into law and we finally saw it passed on the final day of session.

It still needed a small army of citizen lobbyists to get it across the finish line, but employees statewide will be able to look forward to smoke-free workplaces (assuming Gov. Bill Walker signs it) starting in October of this year.

Caveat: To get the bill out of the House Rules Committee, the bill includes provisions that would allow communities to opt out through a public vote. We doubt there will be many communities that successfully exercise this power, but it’s still a hole in the system.

Foster care system

Alaska’s foster care system is largely invisible to anyone not directly involved in the system, so it’s been easy for the systemic problems in law and funding to go unnoticed and unresolved for years and years. That’s why the passage of House Bill 151, along with additional funding for legal guardians, is on this list.

House Bill 151 puts into place tighter caseload limits on the state’s social workers, improves training and makes human changes aimed at improving the outcomes for the thousands of kids in the state’s foster care system.

We thought about giving this mention at first to Rep. Les Gara, the sponsor of the legislation, for accomplishing a long-time and very personal goal, but really there were so many people beyond the possibly maybe retiring Anchorage Democrat that played a role in this win. In particular, special credit should be given to the many foster care youth that visited this session, giving legislators a first-hand reason to act.

Caveat: We can’t really think of one, to be honest.

University of Alaska

After years and years of cuts, the University of Alaska actually saw some of its funding restored during the 2018 session with a grand total of $10 million added back to its operating budget along with a few million dollars to tackle its nightmarish list of deferred maintenance. Let’s be real, things haven’t looked good for the University of Alaska over the past few years and despite the administration’s best efforts to rethink how they do things, the cuts and exodus of talented faculty have not gone over well for the university.

A reversal in funding still puts the university well behind where it was before the budget crisis, but the funding should give the university some more breathing room as it refocuses its efforts. And, hey, the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies did get another $499,500 in the state’s operating budget to study vitamin D.

Caveat: This increase doesn’t guarantee against future cuts, and the system is still playing catch up.

The wealthy

As budget commentator Brad Keithley will oft point out, the reductions to the permanent fund dividend are the single biggest impact the Alaska economy and Alaska families. He’s also pointed out that it’s essentially the smallest possible thing you can do to impact the overall income of the wealthiest Alaskans because the more money you make the less and less a $1,100 reduction from the status quo of the permanent fund dividend level will matter.

Still, restructuring the Alaska Permanent Fund and reducing the dividend were the only piece of the state’s fiscal plan adopted this year. There was almost no talk of a progressive–or even flat–income tax that would bite into the income of the wealthiest Alaskans. Perhaps, as Keithley has also pointed out, that has something to do with the income of Alaska’s legislators. Alaska’s top earners can rest easy that they won’t have to contribute anymore to funding government than Alaska’s poorest.

Caveat: Unless oil booms enough to cover the remaining budget deficit, there’s always going to be some level of appetite for an income tax.

State employees and schools

Thanks to the passage of the operating budget only being somewhat late this year, state employees won’t have to worry about a massive round of layoff warnings or a government shutdown. Legislative inaction and gridlock and gamesmanship have forced layoff notices and real fear of a government shutdown in recent years.

Along that same road, the Legislature also approved a one-time bumps to education funding both this year and the next that should help a bit as local municipalities are forced to shoulder more and more of the costs of education.

Caveat: One year probably doesn’t make up for the rest, nor does it guarantee anything in the future.

Jason Grenn

One of independent Rep. Jason Grenn’s motivating factors for running for election in 2016 was to address the Legislature’s conflict of interest rules. This year saw the passage of his House Bill 44, which updates the state’s conflict of interest rules.

Thanks to changes made by the Senate, the bill includes most of a voter initiative that would also cut per diem when the Legislature doesn’t pass a budget on time as well as a bunch of other tightening to legislative ethics rules. The Senate may have done it to avoid the election, but still Grenn oversaw the passage of one of the biggest overhauls to legislative ethics in years.

Caveat: The Legislature’s legal team believes House Bill 44 will also knock the Government Accountability Act initiative off the ballot because they’re largely similar. We’re bummed–and not just because it’s backed by the Midnight Sun Publisher Jim Lottsfeldt–but because it would have introduced a major wild card for this year’s general election.

Berta Gardner

Of all the legislators who’ve announced their retirement this year, perhaps none have had a more impactful and notable year than Anchorage Democratic Sen. Berta Gardner. She saw two bills pass this year–one strengthening the rights of mothers to terminate the parental rights of rapist fathers and another naming March “Sobriety Awareness Month”–and a resolution naming March 2, 2019 as Alaska Reads Day.

That alone made it the Anchorage legislator’s most productive year during 14 years in the Legislature, but Gardner also used her position as Senate Minority Leader to effectively and clearly stand up for her and her progressive principals. Despite the diminutive size of the Senate minority caucus, Gardner’s experienced leadership regularly made it newsworthy.

Caveat: It may be a long shot, but we would have liked to see what Gardner in the majority would have been like.

Ruth Kostik and the public

We thought we’d round out the list with something like “bipartisanship,” but that’s boring and expected. So we’ll go with the literal winner of this year’s Gavel Classic, a guessing game for when session will be over, Ruth Kostik and the public at large. At least this whole thing has come to an end with relative quickness, and we can get to enjoying our summers.

Caveat: The end of session also brings an end to Twitter gifs, which we’re not really sure is all that bad of a thing.

Honorable mentions

Gov. Bill Walker

The governor spent most of the session out of the fight with a tight focus on his key, politically advantageous priorities like public safety and negotiating natural gas pipeline deals with China. He also–perhaps accidentally–laid bare the Republicans’ hypocrisy when it came to the nominating process for legislative replacements.

The House Majority Coalition

It didn’t implode given multiple opportunities to do so.

Anna MacKinnon

With a role in just about every single thing that happened this session, Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon made an exemplary showing of carrying out the Senate’s conservative brand of politics and blasting Gov. Bill Walker and his administration over just about everything. You might not like her approach or her politics, but it’s hard to argue with the results. She may have announced her retirement from the Legislature, but she’s also put together a great resume for an ultra-conservative administration.

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