AKLEG Day 42: House establishes tribal affairs committee, skepticism over PFD repayment builds

The 37-1 vote to create the Tribal Affairs Committee.

Correction: The section about the full PFD incorrectly listed the Department of Natural Resources as the source of the presentation on the first reference. It should have been Department of Natural Resources, as was listed on the first reference of Department of Revenue Commissioner Bruce Tangeman. It has been updated.

Ah, the Legislature is finally back in full swing. Gone are the days of just one or two hearings on the day’s agenda, and Monday featured five different simultaneous hearings. Things have gone from a trickle to a full-on fire hose of legislative action. For someone with a fever-ish head cold, it was all just so much fun.

Today is Day 43.

House establishes Tribal Committee

The House voted 37-1 on Monday to establish the Special Committee on Tribal Affairs, the first of its kind in the Legislature’s history. The committee will be tasked with “advancing strategic partnerships between tribes and state government.” It will be chaired by Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel.

“In these lean budget times we must build upon innovative approaches that allow us to stretch state dollars farther and this is a great opportunity. Over 50 years into statehood this committee, the first legislative committee of its kind in our history, provides us an opportunity to elevate conversations and strategies that will strengthen collaboration with Alaska’s First People,” she said. “Deepening this government-to-government relationship empowers this body to identify how we can maintain the solvency of state programs in an environment of fewer state dollars.”

Zulkosky highlighted issues like health care, transportation, housing and energy as just a few of the fields where tribes and state government could work more closely together.

The concept of the committee was widely supported by the majority, but was met with some skepticism by the Republican minority. Many of its members argued that separating out tribal issues into its own committee could set a bad precedent.

The only member to ultimately vote against the measure, however, was none other than Rep. David “The Sole Vote Against a Measure Honoring Black Soldiers” Eastman. He raised many points of opposition to the committee, but the only one that seemed to have any merit is that these additional special committees end up just being an extra step in the legislative process, slowing down priority legislation.

He’s not entirely wrong on that point—look at how the energy committees have been used—but hearing bills is not the only thing committees can do. They can also hold hearings on broader issues, which can become the basis of future legislation or other efforts, which appears to be Zulkosky’s plan for the committee.

‘Dangerous precedent’

Attorney General-designee Kevin Clarkson has his confirmation hearing in front of the House Judiciary Committee on Monday, which included both invited and public testimony. The conservative attorney is well-known for championing anti-abortion cases and plenty other conservative cases—both religious and political—and the committee heard plenty of opposition during the public testimony portion of the hearing.

But Clarkson did get some supportive testimony from attorneys that he’s faced off with in the past, earning a Vietnam War comparison by Rep. Laddie Shaw, a Vietnam War veteran who returned to the country decades after the conflict. It’s that kind of testimony that will likely help him through the process, giving moderate legislators the necessary cover to support him on the grounds of professionalism (or something).

Rep. Garbrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, asked a few of Clarkson’s opponents if opposing his appointment because he’s defended conservative issues would set a “dangerous precedent” where appointees to every position could be disqualified because of their past work and beliefs and not on their credentials.

Planned Parenthood’s Alyson Currey was primed for a good response to this—as was just about anyone who’s been watching the appointment process for the last few years—pointing out that, yeah, that’s already happened.

“I will say, though, as an example of a couple nominees in the past that were not confirmed because of their beliefs,” she said. “There was a former Planned Parenthood employee who was an appointment to the Board for Direct Entry Midwives who was not confirmed because of her former employer, and there’s Drew Phoenix who was not appointed to the Human Rights Commission because of his gender identity. I think there’s already been that precedent set.”

LeDoux voted against both Phoenix in 2017 and Kenni Linden, who was the appointee for the Board of Midwives, last year.

House Finance raises concerns with full PFD

There hasn’t been a whole lot of talk about Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s plan to repay dividends over the next three years in the last few weeks where the budget has dominated the conversation, but it came up again during Monday’s overview with the Department of Revenue.

Reps. Dan Ortiz, Bart LeBon, Tammie Wilson and others went down a line of questioning with Department of Revenue Commissioner Bruce Tangeman and OMB Economist Ed King asking about just what kind of impact the supplemental impacts would have on future payouts and future draws from the Permanent Fund.

“If you’re looking generational on the fund, would it be a wiser choice be to roll those dollars into the principle balance?” asked LeBon.

“This is strictly a policy decision,” Tangeman replied. “The governor strongly feels that the citizens of Alaksa were entitled to these funds in ’16, ’17, ’18 and that’s his only goal, to make those years right. They sat there and they earned a nice return for a couple years. It’s not doing a tremendous amount of damage, especially because we’re drawing it out over three years.”

King also jumped into acknowledge that the payout wasn’t the most fiscally prudent decision, but it was the morally right one.

“There is a difference between whether you’re trying to grow and protect that fund versus what that fund’s uses are intended to be,” he said. “If the intent of the fund was to do what the statutes require, which is to pay out the dividends, then it’s not a question about the most prudent fiscal option, it’s a question of what’s the morally right thing to do.”

He went on to suggest that if the goal is really to grow the fund, then why not cut the budget even deeper to eliminate the percent of market value draw altogether.

The discussion, of course, comes just as the Legislature’s unwillingness to repay the dividends is coming into sharp relief with the Monday report by the Anchorage Daily News: “House coalition agreement likely kills Dunleavy’s supersized Permanent Fund dividend.”

It’s unfair to say the House coalition alone will kill the repayment plan as the Senate, including Sen. Lora Reinbold, has been just as similarly skeptical of the repayment plan.

For the record, however, Wilson said she’s still undecided on the payouts.

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