Friday in the Sun (April 17): The Additional Federal Guidance edition

Friday in the Sun is here

Welcome to the latest edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column attempting to make sense of the week in Alaska political news.

‘The Simplest Thing to Do’

Can Gov. Mike Dunleavy use some of the $1.25 billion from the federal CARES Act to replace hundreds of millions of dollars in vetoes? That’s the, well, 1.25 billion-dollar question. We still don’t really have an entirely clear answer—yes the barebones guidance makes it pretty clear that replacing long-standing state programs with money intended to respond to unexpected COVID-19 costs is against the rules—but there’s still additional guidance on the way from the feds that could change things.

Can the money go to economic relief measures? Then the open the floodgates, baby, because a whole lot of spending—including a direct cash payment to Alaskans—could probably be justified under that.

There’s a whole lot of “Who Knows” going on when it comes to federal money (more on that below) but what is becoming clear is that Dunleavy is really limited in what he can do to spend that money without returning to the Legislature for more spending authority.

The CARES Act was just starting to come together when the Legislature got the heck out of Juneau. They considered the economic relief angle, but ultimately decided that handing over Dunleavy the authority to spend a billion dollars without any oversight was probably not a great idea (see various sole-sourced contracts).

Instead, they left Dunleavy with admittedly pretty broad spending powers in the realm of public health.

This whole thing was the topic of a House Finance Committee meeting held on Wednesday. While Attorney General Kevin “Novel Interpretation” Clarkson might disagree, the Legislature’s attorney Megan Wallace laid out a limited set of options for the governor to spend the money: Use existing appropriations that have federal receipts attached to them, ask the Legislature to increase existing appropriations (vetoed to zero appropriations don’t count because they technically don’t exist anymore) or have the Legislature return to pass a new budget with new appropriations to spend that money.

“If we want to take out the speculation or confusion in terms of authority to expend those monies, yes, the simplest thing to do is for the Legislature to specifically appropriate the $1.25 billion,” she told the Legislature. Then there’s no confusion in terms of who has the authority and where those funds go.”

Given that meeting, it’s not surprising then to hear that there’s increasing chatter that legislative leadership is considering a return to session in order to take up and pass a new bill to spend this money. It sounds like much of the talk is in the very early stages—we’re still waiting on that additional federal guidance, anyways—but it sounds like the gears are moving.

Having not passed new rules to allow remote voting—Dang! We should’ve listened to Rep. David “Low-Rent Howard the Duck Cosplayer” Eastman when we had the chance!—the Legislature will need to return to Juneau. But because the session is still in session, all they need is a presiding officer, a gavel and quorum to get business done.

We’d hope they’d head to Juneau having already worked out the legislation ahead of time, but there’s always a wide gulf between hope and reality when it comes to the Alaska Legislature.

There’s some speculation that this was the whole plan when Dunleavy issued his vetoes—knowing that the plan to replace the money wouldn’t pass legal muster—but that might be giving him too much credit. It’s more likely that it’s a product of the seat-of-the-pants governance combined with an attorney general who has a knack for delivering politically convenient interpretations of state law.

Regardless of whether it’s a masterful plot or another goof, it looks like Dunleavy will get another opportunity to pitch a supplemental PFD payment to the Legislature before things are done. We heard speculation that he was going to try to call them into a mid-session special session but that hasn’t come to pass. Either way, it’ll be an incredibly tough sell if he hopes the Legislature will do it with state money—oil is now well below $20 per barrel, painting a miserably dire picture of next year’s budget—but we wouldn’t be surprised if things are different if federal money could be put to use here.

We’ll just have to wait on that additional federal guidance.

The House Finance Committee has scheduled additional hearings next week, including a Wednesday meeting with “updated fiscal outlook” and “direct federal assistance” on the agenda and a Friday meeting with an agenda “forthcoming.”

“Bunch of bullshit”

Speaking about waiting on additional federal guidance, that hasn’t stopped several Lower 48 Native American tribes from suing the federal government in an attempt to stop Alaska Native corporations from getting a piece of $8 billion set aside for tribes in the CARES Act.

The formula for how these funds will be distributed has yet to be published, so we’re not entirely certain how the funds will be distributed and how much would be headed to Alaska Native regional and village corporations. But the whole thing has exploded into an unfortunately partisan mess.

The groups have focused their fire on Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, an Alaska Native and former vice president of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., alleging that she had some role in diverting the funds to for-profit regional corporations—a claim that Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer has been happy to give platform to—and called for her resignation.

The fact of the matter is that Alaska Native corporations are included in the legal definition approved in the CARES Act, wording that Sweeney had no direct involvement in approving. She has noted, though, that the definition would likely exclude Alaska Native nonprofits or tribal health organizations from receiving federal funds.

Alaska’s Congressional delegation released a joint press release late yesterday defending Sweeney.

“I’m extremely disappointed by the personal attacks and baseless allegations against Assistant Secretary Sweeney, including those from Senator Chuck Schumer earlier today,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski yesterday in a prepared statement. “Those attacks betray a complete lack of awareness of Interior’s role in supporting Treasury when it comes to implementing this program. They also betray an utter lack of understanding of what Native Corporations are, why Congress created them, and the purpose they serve in Alaska. Trying to hold any person’s tribal affiliation or similar congressionally established status against them for political purposes is simply gross and a new low. Assistant Secretary Sweeney’s ANCSA affiliation is her birthright. It’s part of her identity as an Alaska Native, similar to tribal enrollment, and should not be used against her based on crass partisan motives.”

Or as Sen. Dan Sullivan summed up the attacks to Politico: A “bunch of bullshit.”

‘Assassinated’

Speaking of a bunch of bullshit, be sure to check out this writeup by Alaska Public Media reporter Nat Herz about marginalized conservatives wanting to get business back to normal as soon as possible and just be glad that they’re—mostly—no longer near the levers of state government.

$4,068,492

That’s how much is coming to 31 Alaska public radio and television from the $75 million allocated to public broadcasting CARES Act, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting announced today.

“Public media stations in every state are working through extraordinary circumstances to be of service to America’s communities hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Pat Harrison, president and CEO of CPB. “Local stations are providing vital health and safety information, while at the same time working to deliver curriculum-based educational programming to homebound students, despite the challenge of declining non-federal revenue. I want to express our grateful appreciation to Congress for their strong, bipartisan support of public media, and to thank as well the advisory group that worked so quickly and thoughtfully to develop a plan for the distribution of these much needed funds in an equitable manner and in a way that honors Congress’ intent.”

Hey, at least someone sees the value in public broadcasting.

Gov. Dunleavy repeated his vetoes of state funding for public broadcasting in this year’s round of budget vetoes (with no plan to replace them with the state’s $1.25 billion in COVID-19 funds). His vetoes nixed nearly $2.7 million for the public broadcasting.

4,200

Speaking of the vetoes, the recall effort is still humming along having sent out about 4,200 sign-at-home packets through its online request form. We hear about 1,000 packets have already been returned.

Still, it looks certain that the Recall Dunleavy group will miss the deadline to call a special election before the fall primary. The group needed to hit the 71,252-signature threshold to call a special election and it currently stands at less than half that figure.

Once they turn in the signatures, the state has between 60 and 90 days to hold a special election. If a primary or general election falls in that window, the state would move the recall question onto that ballot.

0

That’s the number of new cases of COVID-19 in one-time hotspot Fairbanks, marking the fifth day where the Golden Heart city hasn’t seen a new case and a bit of good news as the state is hopefully flattening the curve (we still have some concerns about testing, but we’ll take the good numbers where we can find ‘em).

In other good news from the Interior, West Valley High School graduate Ruthy Hebard was just selected eighth overall in the WNBA draft by Chicago Sky. Too bad we never got to see her and Sabrina Ionescu run wild over March Madness.

Oh! And two-time Alaska High School basketball champion, four-time volleyball champion, four-time shot put champion, two-time discus champion, wrestling champion and two-time MaxPreps high school athlete of the year Alissa Pili, who’s gone from playing at Dimond to USC, was named Pac-12’s Freshman of the Year earlier in April.

Have a good weekend, y’all.

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