The first few weeks of the legislative session have proven that America’s ultimate conversion to a culture of victims may be nearing completion. No one, regardless of their particular shortcomings or challenges need take personal responsibility; they are simply the pawns in a larger socio-economic game over which they have little control. Those who are overweight are simply the victims of McDonald’s and Hershey’s, while those who are too thin clearly should place blame at the feet of Barbie and fashion magazines.
In the halls of the Capitol, this blame game is playing out with Republican after Republican, or more accurately victim after victim, casting blame upon the media for their inability to deliver their message to Alaskans.
In the opening weeks of the session both Sen. Pete Kelly and Rep. Mark Neuman took aim at the media for not reporting just how much the Legislature cut spending last year with Kelly saying:
“There is an integral part that the press plays to this, and I think they’ve done a poor job to this point… The biggest thing that has been lost over the last two years is that we have cut the size of state government. People don’t understand that because it wasn’t reported.”
Dermot Cole of the ADN had a fair retort to Kelly’s comments, so there’s no need to rehash the question here.
Senate President Kevin Meyer, a problem solver and not one to play the victim, addressed the problem more productively during a January 20 “Lunch and Learn” at the Capitol. The event was dedicated to The Rasmuson Foundation’s polling on public attitudes towards the state fiscal crisis.
After being told just how few Alaskans believe he and his colleagues had cut the budget Meyer said:
“Obviously we aren’t doing a very good job messaging and getting the word out if only 15% of people know we have reduced the budget last year by $500 million or more, and so whatever feedback you can give us on how to better message (would be appreciated).”
Well, let me take the good Senator up on his plea for assistance. He can start by accurately understanding his problem. It isn’t that the media isn’t reporting what is being said and done, it’s that the interests within his political sphere of influence aren’t saying what he claims to be the message.
Here are just a few examples
Alaska Republican Party, January 22, 2016
“Last year, Gov. Walker refused to fight for true budget reductions and forced the state to actually issue a shut-down warning to state employees. This year, his cuts are just 2 percent. Yet with built-in wage increases, his budget has actually increased over last year…”
Dave Stieren Commentary, January 21, 2016
“Early reports I have from my little birds in Juneau should terrify you because they’re not talking about cuts. The primary focus by members of the house and senate majority are new revenue streams… No we’re not talking about cutting government, we’re talking about taking money out of the private sector to sustain the budget.”
Alaska Chamber of Commerce President Curtis Thayer, ADN Commentary, January 29
“Last year, Alaska businesses outlined the necessary steps toward fiscal sustainability in a letter to Gov. Bill Walker and the Alaska Legislature. Everything starts with wrestling our ballooning state spending in line with sustainable revenues.”
Senate Majority Press Staffer Daniel McDonald, Facebook , January 22
(In reference to Sen. Pete Kelly’s quote “We are not here to make sure government survives at the expense of the Alaskan people. We’re here to serve the Alaskan people, not the government.”)
“To understand Kelly’s point, it’s important to remember that Alaska’s state government is the most expensive in the nation, three times the national average. He, like many, believe we should cut the fat before asking Alaskans to cover the cost.”
Sen. Meyer, Sen. Kelly, and Rep. Neuwman, you all need to recognize that none of those are mainstream media sources. They are all sources from within your political orbit. They are players supposedly on your team. You may look at each individually and say “they are right”, but regardless of rhetorical nuance the collective message they are sending to the average citizen is this “state government hasn’t cut, isn’t cutting, and won’t cut.”
If that is the wrong message, then you need to look in the ideological mirror and face your problem, not out the window in search of a media bogeyman on whom to blame the problem.
Why This Messaging Matters
The real problem here, of course, isn’t that conservative talk radio, big business, and the Republican Party are getting the signals wrong from their allies in Juneau, it’s that they are getting them right.
The truth is this conflicting messaging is a symptom of the fact that Republicans are trying to have their cake and eat it too. They would have us believe they have cut the budget, but the Governor hasn’t. They want credit for railing about how little the budget has been cut at the same time we give them credit for how much it has been cut.
Is there a legislative staffer out there right now screaming at their computer screen that all these conflicting ideas can be logically reconciled? Of course there is. Are they right? Maybe. Will anyone in the public listen long enough or devote enough mental RAM to understand their point? Nope.
And these political crosswinds are about to bite a few incumbents right in the ballot box. Why?
Virtually every Republican legislator is messaging via newsletter, committee-question time, or posting a video on Facebook of some version of Revenue Commissioner Randy Hoffbeck’s line “the price of admission for new revenues is significant cuts.” But what is “significant” or “meaningful” when it comes to budget cuts? More specifically, what level would voters, particularly Republican primary voters, consider “significant” enough for them to believe new revenues are justified. I’ve asked a dozen or more legislators, commentators, strategists, and budget gurus that question and the top response, actually the only response I got was a raised eyebrow, followed by a shoulder shrug, and topped off with a meek uttering of “I don’t know”.
To be fair, it was a trick question. The correct answer is that the number doesn’t exist. Because of the passion all Alaskans have for their PFD checks and the national anti-institutional, outsider narratives playing out in Republican politics and media there is no number in the way of cuts rank-and-file Republican voters will accept as enough to justify going into their pockets as part of the answer.
Each Republican legislator thinks he or she is building up political capital by grandstanding during committee meetings about how much must be cut. They seem to be oblivious to the political reality that they are just feeding the perception that state government hasn’t cut and never will. They don’t realize they are borrowing from a political loan shark to finance that capital. The moment they vote for any, and I mean ANY fiscal solution that involves sizable new taxes or use of Permanent Fund revenues, that bill comes due. The beast that is populist conservatism will turn on many elected Republican legislators as sell outs to big government spending and no number of Facebook videos or committee speeches will save them.
There are already Republican primary challengers to sitting legislators popping up around the state from the Kenai Peninsula to the Mat-Su valley. Heck, in Anchorage, Ross Beiling, running on a staunch fiscally conservative platform, has already run longtime Republican legislator Mike Hawker out of the race.
The moment Republican legislators cast a vote on the budget this year watch how fast Ross-Beiling-type candidates magically appear in conservative districts like Mark Neuman’s, Shelly Hughes’, and Cathy Tilton’s. For conservative groups like the Alaska Republican Assembly and Alaska Libertarian Party looking for candidates to challenge the Republican establishment, it could be Christmas Day.
The Rain Man With a Plan
Chugiak/Mat-Su Sen. Bill Stoltze is an interesting character in this ever churning political drama. He’s something of a one-man institutional memory for the legislature, capable of recalling the most obscure of policy minutia from the last two decades. He also has the best nose for conservative politics I’ve ever seen.
Even while spending his the last few years in the state house co-chairing the finance committee, crafting the largest budgets the state had ever seen, doling out pork faster than Arthur Bryant, and building completely unneeded sports facilities almost everywhere, he was still able to maintain his fiscal conservative street-cred in one of the most conservative districts in the state. The man is a genius. As geniuses go, he’s more Rain Man than Iron Man, but still a genius.
He, and maybe he alone, seems to get the conservative political dynamics at play in this year’s budget discussions. He gets the legislature has to do something to avert budget and economic calamity, but he also understands that the moment he votes for a solution that even he becomes a viable primary election target.
Leave it to Juneau’s rain man to be the only one to figure out a solution. His plan is to flip the political dynamics on their head by placing a solution that involves use of the Permanent Fund on the fall ballot as a constitutional amendment. In doing so, the weight of responsibility for the ramifications of instituting or not instituting new revenues shifts from legislators to voters. Each citizen won’t have an elected official to project their uninformed frustrations upon, they will actually have to make a decision themselves, and take responsibility for it. All the while incumbents across the state can run on having addressed the problem while giving power to the people to decide their own fate…..Genius.
Stoltze explained his thoughts in the senate press availability this week:
There doesn’t seem to be a huge appetite for Stolze’s solution right now and make no mistake his idea isn’t without pitfalls. What happens if voters say no to whatever is put on the ballot? No one really knows. But just wait and see how the crushing pressure of this session bears down and one by one Republicans realize the messaging trap that they have created for themselves. As that process plays out, I suspect Stoltze’s win-win way out will grow on worried legislators.