Friday in the Sun (June 7): The Let’s Worry About Stuff edition

Friday in the Sun is here

Another week, another week closer to a government shutdown and another round-up of rumor and gossip from the Alaska political world.

The Legislature and everyone involved seems to be under the good ol’ attitude of “Things’ll be fine,” and we wish we could be as optimistic. Maybe we should just try being happy for once?

More to worry about

Count us surprised that the fact that Alaska’s running out of money for Medicaid hardly registered in the broader news world in the last week. Without the supplemental influx of cash for the current fiscal year contained in the operating budget, the state’s expected to cut payments off to large and small providers in the next week.

And from what we’ve heard there’s more problems on the way for Alaska’s social safety net programs.

If Alaska teeters into the new fiscal year without a budget in place, we’ve heard the state is exploring what it can and can’t do when it comes to benefits paid out by the state. We’ve heard pretty much everything except for SNAP, which is 100 percent federally funded, could be on the chopping block to be cut off entirely or reduced while the budget is yet to be passed. We’re talking about senior benefits, temporary assistance and anything else that has at least some state dollars wrapped up in it.

During a shutdown, the state is supposed to prioritize its last remaining money to keep things related to “life, health and safety” ongoing. The problem comes down to who gets to decide what fits under that label. We imagine that an administration that’s cozy with Americans for Prosperity might not see social safety net programs the same was as everyone else.

We’ve also heard some complaints about how this decision-making being driven, which is to say it’s all top-down and driven more by politics than by department-level expertise. It’s not all that surprising, given that Chief of Staff Tuckerman Babcock directed a rollback of drinking water pollution standards, according to reporting by CoastAlaska’s Jacob Resneck and columnist Dermot Cole.

That said, it sounds like this is all in flux now and won’t be decided until we get closer to July 1.

It takes time, after all, to run everything through the third floor.

In flux

That’s probably the most accurate way to describe what’s going on in the Legislature right now, where legislators seem to hope that things are coming together even though more big problems seem to be sparking up.

That or “squirrelly.”

As it stands right now, the budgets are all still unapproved as the Senate continues to wrestle with just what to do with a PFD. This week, we saw the Senate let the cat out of the bag when it allowed a PFD appropriation bill to make it to the Senate floor and be amended up to $3,000. Subsequent efforts to put the cat back in the bag and that bag into a river fell short on Thursday.

Now the Senate’s shooting at having everything done by Monday, which will mean yet-to-be-announced weekend meetings of the operating budget conference committee. Pass the $3,000 PFD and then pass the budget. How will it be paid for? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Ultimately, it’s a move that kicks the can over to the House, which has never been particularly keen on a $3,000 dividend and nothing seems to have changed over here. The Senate passing out the PFD and the budget is a step toward completion, but it’s far from a done deal.

The House could pass out the operating budget and save the dividend for another day, as its leadership has indicated would be its preference given the governor could slash the budget regardless of the passage of a PFD.

But there’s a new concern on this end that could force action sooner than later: The reverse sweep. I’ve attempted to explain this in-person a few times since it came across my radar with mixed success, but here goes:

The Alaska Constitution requires that any money taken out of the Constitutional Budget Reserve is eventually paid back. It does this with a sweep language saying any leftover money is automatically swept into the Constitutional Budget Reserve, where it can’t be touched without a three-quarter vote.

The Legislature typically does this with “reverse sweep” language that also requires a three-quarter vote that essentially kicks the money back to where it was before the sweep. This typically applies to the general fund and some other accounts, but the concern is that it could be applied to other savings accounts like the Power Cost Equalization Fund, the Higher Education Investment Fund and the Community Assistance Program.

All programs—and money—that the Legislature would probably like to keep in place. The Legislature would likely argue that these are not sweep-able, but the governor has already come up with some novel ideas about what’s allowable under the constitution.

To avoid this drama altogether, both chambers would need to muster a three-quarter vote (probably attached to the yet-finished capital budget) and that gives leverage into the hands of the House Republicans, who are fully committed to the $3,000 PFD. They could withhold their votes on the reverse sweep for that sweet, sweet full PFD.

Of course, with a light-on-cuts budget, an expensive new crime bill and a $3,000 PFD, the state is still essentially leaping off a fiscal cliff with this move, at least in the eyes of folks like Sens. Bert Stedman, Natasha von Imhof and the House Majority.

Getting done on time still requires the House Majority to reverse course on the dividend and overall state spending. It doesn’t sound likely, but who knows anymore. If the House doesn’t roll over on a $3,000 dividend then the battle will certainly continue.

Anyways, for now add the sweep to the list of things—layoff notices, missed Medicaid payments and general misery—that would happen if a budget is not approved by the end of the fiscal year.

Mat-Su

If the Legislature isn’t done by next week, then the governor is eagerly waiting to call everyone into a special session at the Wasilla Middle School, which is apparently the choicest of locations after all the scouting in the area.

The Legislature has already raised concerns about safety, but they produced a dazzling six-page paper outlining all sorts of concerns they have with the place. Here’s a sampling:

  • Inadequate sound systems and recording in the gyms
  • How they plan to handle the audiences in the bleachers
  • Lack of teleconferencing ability
  • Is there adequate cell service for folks on Verizon?
  • Is there a facility to make/serve coffee/tea as expected by members?
  • Are chairs/desks/furniture adult-sized?

Laughs, aside the document also outlines a ton of concerns that the governor has essentially set up a situation where he can straight up spy on legislators because the governor’s office would be situated in the administrative area of the building. (The fact that the governor would even have space in the building is a concern by itself.)

“As proposed, the governor’s office has access to all cameras for the entire building. This is not appropriate. The governor should not have access to security cameras over legislative space. Who will respond to public info requests for camera footage? Will the governor’s office respond to inquiries for leg office area footage? Will they adopt the Legislative Council records policy? In addition, would the school own/have access to the footage?”

Recall that this is the governor who forbids cell phones in one-on-one meetings with legislators.

The solution for this, though, would be for the Legislature to simply gavel in and gavel out of the session.

Which, of course, would just push us another few days closer to a shutdown.

PFD rally

But if you were hoping that the governor’s Thursday-night Wasilla PFD rally would be a site of beefed-up security as a sign that the Legislature’s concerns about safety aren’t overblown, you’ll be disappointed. From what we’ve heard there wasn’t a particularly high security presence at the meeting even though there were a few of open-carried guns in the audience.

Our source said all they saw was a single uniformed trooper and the governor’s usual stern-faced security guy. Of course, it’s a pro-Dunleavy crowd complete with his own “hip hop hype man”-style people in the crowd.

“Jeff Landfield with a microphone was the most dangerous thing about the event,” our source said.

That said, our source is familiar with the area, and said media reports of a 350-person crowd were vastly overstated. About half the room was full at the start and only about half the chairs from the last event were set up.

Coming this Sunday

‘Opposite of Groovy’

Alaska’s hold music is back online this week, but only after the removal of “Flicker of Light” by Whiskey Class and “Mother Carries” by Harm. They were apparently cut out because of “unspecified complaints,” but it’s been pointed out to us that the removed bands also happen to be the queer and women-led bands. Or as one complaint that we’re not going to link to explains: “witches.”

It’s the future and everything is terrible, but at least it’s easier than ever to support your Alaska-grown musicians.

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