Saturday in the Sun (April 4): The Coronavirus Campaign edition

Friday in the Sun is here

Welcome to the latest edition of Friday in the Sun, a mostly weekly mostly Friday column attempting to make sense of things in the Alaska political world. It’s a bit of rumor, a bit of gossip and padded with observations from a journalist-turned-blogger who’s been nerding out over this stuff for a while.

The Legislative session came to its abrupt end last weekend, capping off what had largely been an unexciting session with plenty of it’d-be-fun-there-wasn’t-a-pandemic-going-on fireworks. As they depart Juneau, legislators also leave behind a growing mountain of uncertainty over the state’s financial situation after having solved very few of the problems known when they gaveled in on Jan. 21.

The state’s financial situation: Far worse. The future of the PFD: Lookin’ doomed. Sen. Peter Micciche’s alcohol law rewrite: Still not passed. The can: Kicked.

Life in April without the legislative agenda to follow: Aimless.

Campaigning in the time of Coronavirus

Incumbent legislators are still barred from campaigning and fundraising because the Legislature is still in session, which reaches its 90-day end on April 19 and its 121-day end on May 20 (more on that lower down).

So it’s with great heel-dragging that I’m finally taking a good look at what’s going on in the April 7 Anchorage election, which is still underway thanks to the city’s switch to by-mail ballots (just remember not to lick the envelope!). I’ll be diving into it the best way I know, with campaign finance reports filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission. This covers all fundraising activity through March 28.

As always, my work is only as good as the data campaigns provide to APOC. I’ve found a few inconsistencies in the transactions document pulled from the website that I’ve tried to clean up, but you can spend a lifetime trying to clean everything up. So, you know, grain of salt and everything.

According to our breakdown of the numbers, coronavirus has largely put the brakes on any fundraising in March. This year’s candidates had outpaced last year’s candidates in terms of fundraising but have since fallen behind as fundraising has come to a near-halt over the last few weeks.

Expenditures have slowed heading to election day while spending sped up last year.

The whole situation has obviously created a difficult campaign season as many of the traditional avenues for reaching out to voters are out the window thanks to the virus. Skim through the expenditures this year and you’ll find quite a bit of spends on digital and radio advertising as well a few last-minute purchases of signs and mailers (Rick Castillo plunked down $6,471.86 for 8×4 signs and mailers on March 28, the final day covered by the reporting period).

Take a look at some charts:

By the numbers, the race for South Anchorage’s District 6 is the big-ticket race with a grand total of $100,153.05 raised between incumbent Suzanne LaFrance ($66,453.05) and conservative challenger Rick Castillo ($33,700.00).

By the way, LaFrance and Assemblyman John Weddleton both announced today that they’ll be donating their assembly pay people affected by the coronavirus shutdown, donating to Nine Star Education and Employment Services’ Net-to-Ladder program. “It seems the fair thing to do,” the pair announced in a news release.

The second big challenge on the assembly is between incumbent Felix Rivera and conservative challenger Christine Hill. Rivera reports $56,438.51 in total income and $43,678.31 in expenditures. Hill’s raised $39,049.25 and spent $35,516.99.

On the school board level, the race between James Smallwood and incumbent Dave “Nothing Says Freedom Like Mandating the National Anthem in Schools” Donley is the only one that’s competitive fundraising-wise. Smallwood has raised $29,061.43 and spent $24,471.98. Donley has raised $40,747.89 and spent $24,046.87.

We haven’t done a heckuva lot of digging through who’s funding what candidates this year (honestly, I’m still getting the hang of Anchorage politics. Fairbanks forever!), but one tipster highlighted that several Columbia Sussex employees and their family members have given a sizeable chunk of money to Castillo ($6,000) and Hill ($5,000) from their addresses in Kentucky.

Update: As a tipster points out, the state has a cap on how much candidates can raise from Outside. That voter-approved cap for municipal candidates is $3,000, but it was struck down in a 2018 court ruling that found it violated the First Amendment. So… Yep.

Columbia Sussex is the owner of the Hilton Anchorage, which has been the scene of the ongoing labor fights between the owners and Unite Here! Local 878. The company and hotel have long been under fire for alleged unfair labor practices.

Anyways, candidates this year have cumulatively reported raising $474,329.35 and have reported spending $343,983.93.

Activity has also been somewhat muted on the proposition front.

The alcohol tax is the big-ticket issue, as well as the source of a fair amount of confusion in the filings. Alaskans Against Unfair Alcohol Taxes, the alcohol industry-supported group, seems to have the most difficulty in filling out APOC forms as the group’s reports from this year also seems to be carrying over the big spending from last year’s alcohol tax ballot fight.

If we look at spending that is specifically targeted to this year’s measure, the anti-tax group has spent about $145,000 and is lagging behind the spending of the pro-tax Yes for a Safe, Healthy Anchorage, which has logged somewhere in the neighborhood of $223,000 spent according to the expenditure reports.

The 2014 ballot initiative pledged to have Alaska treat and regulate marijuana like alcohol, but six years later that doesn’t seem to apply to political spending. While the campaign over alcohol taxes is nearing $400,000 this year, the battle over on-site consumption is just a puff of smoke with a total of $12,360 spent according to our breakdown.

The Alaska Marijuana Industry Association has spent $1,296.25 on its campaign, according to reports. On the other end of things is the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, which opposed putting the measure on the ballot, has reported spending about $11,000 against the proposition.

The measure, if passed, would allow permitted marijuana businesses to allow on-site smoking of marijuana products. Alaska’s statewide regulators approved on-site consumption last year but allows municipalities to regulate it further. Currently, Anchorage only allows on-site consumption of edibles (which, last time we checked, no one has pursued).

Spending on bonds this year is a one-sided fight.

Armed with thousands of dollars in small-dollar contributions, the group backing Proposition 12, which would add another election district to the assembly maps so Assemblyman Christopher Constant doesn’t have to represent District 3 all by his lonesome, has spent about $8,200 on its campaign.

Issue Spending For Spending Against Groups Supporting Groups Opposing
Prop 5 (Parks and Rec) and Prop 7 (Senior centers and libraries) $8,097.30 $0.00 Anchorage Park Foundation
School Bonds $42,500.00 $0.00 2020 – School Bonds Yes!
Prop 11 (Onsite marijuana smoking) $1,296.25 $11,063.75 Alaska Marijuana Industry Association American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network
Prop 12 (New assembly district) $8,179.15 $0.00 2020 – 2 for ALL Anchorage
Prop 13 (Alcohol taxes) $224,592.36 $145,644.18 2020 – Yes for a Safe, Healthy Anchorage, Alaska Children’s Trust, Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii 2020 – Alaskans Against Unfair Alcohol Taxes
2020 – Suzanne LaFrance $16,278.04 $20,000.00 2020 – Putting Alaskans First Committee, 2020 – Working Families of Alaska, The Alaska Center, 2020 – Alaska Democratic Party, Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii 2020 – Associated Builders and Contractors of Alaska
2020 – Pete Petersen $4,817.06 $0.00 2020 – Putting Alaskans First Committee, 2020 – Alaska Democratic Party, Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, The Alaska Center
2020 – Felix Rivera $1,785.56 $0.00 2020 – Putting Alaskans First Committee, 2020 – Alaska Democratic Party, Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii
2020 – Christopher Constant $18.90 $0.00 Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii
2020 – Stephany Jeffers $18.90 $0.00 Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii
2020 – Austin A Quinn-Davidson $18.90 $0.00 Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii
2020 – James Smallwood $268.98 $0.00 Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii
2020 – Andy Holleman $0.00 $0.00 2020 – Alaska Democratic Party
2020 – Rick Castillo $0.00 $171.70 Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii
2020 – Dave Donley $0.00 $250.07 Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii
2020 – Monty Dyson $0.00 $78.37 Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii

As for the end of session

Before leaving session, legislators passed a resolution that allows them to go longer than three days without meeting. It basically leaves the door open to additional meetings if things are super critical and there isn’t a significant risk of infection.

Don’t plan on them coming back unless it’s urgent and even then, I’d expect them to wait it out until the summer when things might settle down a bit before calling a special session. The session would automatically run out on May 20 without needing anyone to show up.

Starting tomorrow, the capitol building will be closed until April 12 for a deep clean of the building out of an abundance of caution.

Anchorage Democratic Party

The Anchorage Democratic Party announced this week that its hired Fairbanks North Star Borough Assemblywoman Mindy O’Neall to fill the party’s role as coordinated campaign director. O’Neall is a talented campaigner and hopefully will bring some much-needed organization to this year’s elections (beware the spoilers and unforced errors of 2018!).

Appointees

Dunleavy released a new slate of appointees on Wednesday. The name that stuck out to us is Abe Williams, who was appointed to the Board of Fish. Williams is a commercial fisherman as well as a Pebble Mine employee because of course!

He’s the regional outreach director for the Pebble Limited Partnership and was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit trying to halt the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association’s helping of anti-Pebble Mine causes, which was tossed shortly after it was filed.

Appointees this year will get a free pass of sorts. after the Legislature skipped town without its usual confirmation session. It did pass a law that essentially allows all appointees to serve through to next year and stand for confirmation next year. This’ll certainly be one of the big ones.

The appointments before the Legislature would typically be rejected if legislators don’t meet in a joint confirmation session, a particularly bad idea in the time of social distancing. Instead, they passed a measure that will allow all appointments serve through Jan. 18, 2021, giving this Legislature the opportunity to hold the joint session when things cool down. If they don’t hold this special session all the appointments would automatically be rejected and barred from being reappointed. (Thanks to the politico who corrected me on this.)

Beware the spend

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration is showing Alaskans just what it can do with his newfound emergency spending powers and it’s just as sketchy as you’d expect after a year and a half of cutting sole-source contracts that, at the very least, have the appearance of sweetheart political payback.

The news was broken by columnist Dermot Cole that the governor had inked a contract with Florida Virtual School to the tune of $525,000. Cole talked with school administrators who were surprised that they hadn’t, you know, been contacted about the plan to outsource Alaska’s K-12 education to the Florida-run outfit that as of last year faced a “leadership crisis after resignation, investigations, unexpected death.”

This is all great news considering the governor has about $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus coming his way with no real guidelines on how it can and can’t be spent.

At least it’ll keep folks like Reps. Zack Fields and Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, who dared question the governor over his sole-source contract to Clark Penney, busy next session.

And if the last year of headlines isn’t enough to cause heartburn over the months ahead, then the Legislature has some additional reading for you to do.

On Monday, before heading out of town legislators on the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee stuck around long enough to release the statewide audit, a constitutionally mandated report that reviews the state’s finances and the administration’s compliance with state and federal laws. The 613-page report is as troubling as it is long and technical.

The report uncovered an unprecedented number of instances of noncompliance with state laws on everything from how oil and gas taxes are handled (several hundreds of millions were not deposited in the constitutional budget reserve according to state law, depriving the state of millions in investment revenue) to an incredibly lax approach to pre-approval of Medicaid procedures that allowed what looks like a pretty clear-cut case of fraud to go on unfettered (like at three-year-old being given 14 stainless steel crowns).

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, summed it up during a virtual townhall this week.

“There’s gonna be lawsuits over this,” he said.

Of course, much of the situation seems to fall under the purview of Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, who hasn’t found a novel interpretation of state statute and case law that he hasn’t liked. Clarkson apparently is claiming expanded privilege over how much of the oil and tax revenue was handled.

Kris Curtis, the legislative auditor, explained to KTUU why this whole thing creates some serious red flags.

“I have two problems with this,” Curtis told KTUU. “First, it was way past the timeline for completing fieldwork – I had communicated the deadline in writing and verbally. With a formal letter, two in-person meetings and multiple emails. Secondly, having files scrubbed by management is not reliable evidence.”

But, hey, at least Clarkson’s Department of Law finally chalked up a win against the unions this week when a superior court judge this week upheld, at least for now, the state’s ability to force state employees to come into work against the recommendation of pretty much every public health official’s guidelines for COVID-19.

Have a nice weekend y’all

Go watch the pre-taped, two-night Wrestlemania!

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1 Comment on "Saturday in the Sun (April 4): The Coronavirus Campaign edition"

  1. To be fair many of the legislative audit findings occurred under the Walker administration and have continued on or overlapped in the Dunleavy Administration. Rather than casting blame a better approach would be to fix the problems and protocol so the problems do not occurr again.

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