Every year, about this time, state lawmakers from the Anchorage area return home en masse and invite any and all from the community to share their thoughts in person on whatever topic interests them. That event is referred to as the Anchorage Caucus.
This annual tradition was once again held on Saturday, and since you may not have had the time to attend, and the event isn’t live streamed anywhere, we’ll help you out by telling you the five things you need take from the event. Think of it as a CliffsNotes version of the two hours of political back and forth.
Takeaway #1: Change of Location
Before the first politician rose to speak or the first constituent could complain about something a politician was failing to do, simply where they chose to do it matters.
Traditionally, the Anchorage caucus meetings have been held in the Anchorage Assembly chambers at the Loussac Library. This time, however, co-organizers Rep. Ivy Spohnholz (D) and Rep. Chris Birch (R) chose to have the event at the legislature’s new Legislative Information Office (LIO). No, not the newly remodeled LIO downtown that lawmakers will end up paying $37 million for, but rather the new, new LIO on the corner of Minnesota and Benson that legislators purchased last year for $11.85 million.
The reason the change of location is significant is that this was the first use of the new office space for a large constituent engagement activity. Even though the new LIO hasn’t yet been reconfigured to service legislative activities, the Anchorage caucus showed it has the space and versatility to handle events of this kind in the future. That isn’t something that could be said for the old LIO in Downtown Anchorage prior to its remodel.
Whatever we may think of the legislature spending well over $50 million just to get office space in Anchorage, if we’re being fair, we have to concede the Anchorage caucus demonstrated they at least got a space that meets the needs of legislators and the public.
Takeaway #2: Structure
Birch and Spohnholz didn’t just change the traditional location of the event, they changed how it is done. For as long as I can remember, these meetings were run like public hearings: Legislators sat on one side of a room while members of the public were given 2-3 minutes to speak about whatever issue bothered them. When the allotted time for the event ran out, the meeting was over, and whoever didn’t get to say their piece was encouraged to email their comments to their legislator.
This time, however, legislators broke into separate rooms with a Senator and the two House Representatives who share their district. For example, Senator Kevin Meyer was in a group with Rep. Charisse Millett and Rep. Chris Birch. Constituents could then go to the group with their legislators and have a back and forth discussion about their issues, rather that just testify.
I have to admit, at first the change bothered me, since it makes it harder for me to hear what every participant had to say. But after seeing how the event ran, I changed my mind. The new format allowed for far more dialogue between constituents and their legislators and made it more difficult for special interests to create the illusion of support for their issues by having a few people voice support or opposition on an issue. Now, to create the same effect they would need 2-3 people in each group to achieve the same results.
Want to see what I mean? Take a look at this report from KTUU. The story makes it seem like several random citizens gave various personal points of view; however three of the four people interviewed are from special interest groups, and at least two of them were paid to go to the event and share that interest’s view. Under the new structure, those folks could only share their views with their own legislators.
The result was a much more organic feel to the discussion with less special interest influence.
Takeaway #3: Cabbies Out In Force
While the new structure of the Anchorage caucus made it difficult for any one special interest to influence the debate, one lobby did a better job than most. It was those darned Anchorage cabbies.
As I floated between different rooms, I consistently heard 1-2 cabbies in each group talk about their opposition to letting ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft come into Alaska.
They are the only special interest I would say had a consistent presence and message on Saturday.
Takeaway #4: No PFD Backlash
There is a narrative out there that says the political shock of Governor Walker’s veto of Permanent Fund disbursements last year singlehandedly cratered his approval numbers and killed off a ton of incumbents in the fall election.
One of two things was clear on Saturday: Either the backlash has waned or it never existed. I’m pretty confident in saying that, unlike the national backlash Pres. Trump is getting for his policies at town halls, there was no such rancor here.
There were no protests, no groups chanting about saving their PFDs, and few heated arguments between constituents and legislators on the subject.
In fact, the tone of the discussion I heard was that most who came had long since accepted that some portion of their PFD would be needed to fund state services. The discussion had moved on to what is needed to go along with Permanent Fund revenues in order to balance the state budget: a spending cap, an income or sales tax, or perhaps higher taxes on the oil industry.
The 100-200 people attending the caucus is a pretty small sample size on which to judge the community’s larger feelings, but if it is reflective of those views, I would have to say the shock of losing the PFD is over. People have moved on.
That’s a huge conversational shift from just a year or two ago when the idea of using any portion of PFD money would have been considered a move sure to cost any politician who advocated for it their job in the next election.
Takeaway #5: Judge For Yourself
Each caucus attendee was given this paper along with two red stickers, two yellow stickers, and two green stickers to allocate as they saw fit.
Here is how the dots got distributed among Alaska’s fiscal options. I was surprised at how many green dots PFD use received, but judge what these voting patterns mean for yourself.