Saturday in the Sun (March 21): The Hunker Down edition

Friday in the Sun is here

Welcome to the latest edition of our weekly column attempting to make sense of the week that was in Alaska politics. Oof. Things have really changed, huh?

As we’re all starting to social distance and hunker down—which goes into effect in Anchorage on Sunday at 10 p.m.—there’s a horrible sense of dread as we brace for whatever wave is looming over the state. Just how bad it will be is unclear, but it is looking more and more certain that we’ll all be in this for the long haul. It’s that much more important that we take care of ourselves, pay attention to your limits and stay well.

In the days, weeks and months ahead, we will be tested and collectively pushed to our limit. We’ve seen portraits in sacrifice already as people rise to meet the challenge to try to flatten the curve and preserve the capacity of our limited health care system for those who will need it most.

By the end of this there will be countless untold stories. Stories like the optician and other health care workers who were called into duty to help with drive-by testing in Fairbanks (where it’s mercifully warm-ish), rookie musher Quince Mountain who was pulled from the Iditarod as the race shuttered checkpoints and Sen. Donny Olson who announced that he would delay his return to Golovin instead of risking spreading the virus to his community.

There have been nurses discussing sewing masks and several places have donated or helped collected personal protect equipment (Anchorage is already in dire need and reaching out for anyone with masks, nitrile exam gloves, face shields or medical gowns).

To those people, I say thank you. Thank you so very much.

Anyways, onto it.

The state of the session

Legislators seem to be torn between two main groups right now: Those who want to do as little as possible before leaving as fast as possible and those who want to do as much as possible before leaving as fast as possible.

Work is coming together quickly on the operating budget and the capital budget, with both looking likely to pass in the next few days. The question is how much other stuff can—or should—pass by then. There’s a great case for several economic measures to pass, a good case for some business related-measures to pass and a not-so-great case for several other measure that are moving forward.

What’s frustrating is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear message on what should and shouldn’t be passing, leaving it up to individual legislators or coalitions of legislators to push ahead measures without it being entirely clear if there’s a pathway to a speedy passage in the other legislature.

There’s also the issue of the underfunded supplemental budget that’s currently awaiting transmittal to the governor. Requiring a three-quarter constitutional budget reserve vote (also tied to the reverse sweep), 10 House minority Republicans blocked the measure in hopes of keeping the fight alive for a full PFD, more government cuts and anti-abortion legislation.

It leaves the $90 million of the $360 million supplemental budget unfunded, leaving insufficient funding to cover the state’s higher-than-expected firefighting costs, keep Medicaid running through July 1, keep low-income seniors in the Pioneer Homes or to pay for the second round of the state’s response to COVID-19.

This is also generally the same group that is opposing the Legislature taking up anything other than the budget in the next few days. They also don’t like lengthy political speeches, they’ve said while making lengthy political speeches. Go figure.

Anyways, it’s gonna be an impossible task to keep legislators in Juneau once the budgets are passed. Whether any of these things get resolved before then could be anyone’s guess.

Patience is certainly running out with the House Minority.

“We plan on passing the operating budget and the capital budget and leaving town,” Senate Finance Committee Co-Chair Sen. Bert Stedman told Alaska Landmine’s Jeff Landfield. “It’s up to the House Minority if they want to go along with that.”

Not so fast

The grim reality of it the situation is that legislators are likely some of the prime vectors to spread the virus. They’ve been working in close quarters and despite efforts to limit exposure by closing their doors to the public and asking some members to self-quarantine before returning to the building after out-of-state travel, it hasn’t stopped several legislators from jetting between home and Juneau on the weekends.

That reality is clear to Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, who on Thursday said he won’t immediately plan on returning to his home in the 100-person community because he’s concerned he and his family could spread the virus.

“I have made the decision that my family of eight will not return to Golovin right away,” he said. “The risk is too high that we carry the virus back to our small village of 100 people.”

Olson also reminded legislators of the annihilation that remote Alaska communities faced during the fall spread of the 1918 Spanish Flu.

Today, a handful of House legislators echoed the concern.

“Now is absolutely not the time for us to be having lengthy debate, back-and-forth and political maneuvering. For every day that we remain in session here in Juneau, the risk of me to return to my rural community,” said Bethel Rep. Tiffany Zukolsky, while choking back tears, “increases every day. The potential that I could be a vector be patient zero in a district that I love so much increases every day.”

Not so noble

On the other end of the spectrum is the increasingly funny-but-not-haha-funny Congressman Don Young, who made national headlines for telling seniors to disregard the “beer virus” and go about their business as usual while glad-handing at several events over the past week. Hat tip to the Mat-Su Frontiersman’s Tim Rockey who huffed it out to the meeting, producing the record that everyone else worked from.

The runner up to this madness has got to be part-time legislator, full-time conspiracy theorist Sen. Mike Shower. We blanked last week on including a Facebook post last week where he suggested that the whole thing was “a bit spooky” because Koontz wrote about “Wuhan-400” in a 1981 book. Also recall, he said, that Tom Clancy “rote about an airplane being used as a weapon year before 9/11.”

We ALMOST let it slide, thinking—wrongly—that this dummy’s mind might have changed after a week of self-quarantine and maybe he’d have the decency to at least keep the military porn to himself. But alas:

But, hey, nobody let him see a trailer for “Tom Clancy’s The Division,” “Tom Clancy’s The Division 2” or “Tom Clancy’s The Division 2: Warlords of New York” where the premise is a highly contagious infectious disease brings American society down after pushing it to its breaking point.

Or maybe do, then he can run off to his bunker to ride it out.

Recall goes by-mail

The Recall Dunleavy campaign halted its in-person signature gathering but the always-resourceful group hasn’t given up on the effort. The group announced this week that it’s taking the signature gathering process to the mail by allowing people to request single-page signature booklets.

It’s a particularly clever move because it also recreates what made the initial application round work so well. During the application process, signatures were gathered far more easily from around the state because application sheets could be printed out, signed and mailed in from anywhere in the state.

A single-paged booklet can collect a total of 15 signatures, so it’s more than enough for social-distancing households and potentially a big boon when people are released from the social-distancing orders.

The long-term outlook of the recall is definitely unclear right now. Much of it looking ahead, I’d imagine that it will likely depend on Dunleavy’s response and handling of the response to the coronavirus at this point. He’s certainly made some right steps, but things like his veto of the $2 million of special needs funding and the seemingly inexplicable refusal to send home nonessential state workers (SERIOUSLY, SEND THEM HOME!) don’t help and keep last year’s furor feeling fresh.

$1,000

That’s the size of the dividend as proposed by the Senate Finance Committee, which was taking amendments to the operating budget this afternoon. They also rejected a proposal for an emergency additional dividend to be paid out earlier.

It’s likely bad news for Gov. Dunleavy’s emergency economic plan that he put out on Friday, which called for the immediate payback of last year’s dividend. One politico pointed out that the plan sure looked a lot like the Tall One’s regular plan just minus the draconian cuts.

Still, if there’s any time where the merits of a large cash payout to Alaskans ought to stand on their own now is probably the time. The issue, though, is the state of the state’s long-term finances and by “long-term,” we mean next year. The Legislature could eliminate the entire PFD and the way oil prices are trending, we would still be staring down a massive deficit in next year’s budget. The concern is a big payout without a plan for new revenue will put the Legislature in an increasingly tight spot when putting together the budget, endangering the bones of state government like education, health, public safety and transportation.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really seem like there’s much time right or interest in negotiating right not but right now really does present a good opportunity to reach some kind of compromise on the budget. What if there’s a payback, perhaps even a structured one paying out monthly or quarterly payments, in return of a settled reduced dividend in the future. What if there’s a payback but it’s means-tested? What if there’s a payback with the guarantee of new revenue?

And finally

Go out and have a nice rest of your weekend! Find enjoyment in the little things and the big explosions.

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