It hasn’t been a banner year for the Alaska Legislature.
Whether it’s been the budget, the fiscal situation, crime, natural resource development or sexual harassment in the halls of the capitol, the Legislature has routinely failed to rise to the challenge. Instead, efforts to tackle any of the big issues have been marked by divisive politics, refusals to negotiate and paranoia. In all of 2017, the Legislature has sent just 32 bills to Gov. Bill Walker, which is far below recent years. It only took an extended regular session and four special sessions, which amounted to more than 200 days in session. Today, we’ll be looking at some of the biggest failures out of Juneau this year.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, but we’ll save the finger-pointing for the 2018 elections.
The Legislature came up far short of even our lowest expectations for passing a budget this year. While legislators fought over other issues like tax credits and taxes, we once again stared down a government shutdown and thousands of state employees received warnings about impending layoffs. This time the Legislature got around to passing the operating budget with just a week before the start of the new fiscal year. It was one of the ugliest paths to a budget in recent memory and peaked when the House rolled the operating and capital budgets together into a take-it-or-leave-it budget before adjourning from session (the only notable accomplishment from this action was to unite Gov. Bill Walker and the Republican Senate in denouncing the House ploy).
Oh, and it took until July 27 for the Legislature to pass a capital budget.
The fiscal situation
We’ll end 2017 with a slightly better handle on the state’s financial troubles, but there’s little reason to be thanking the Legislature for the situation. While recovering oil prices and climbing production are a lifeline for the state’s dismal finances, the Legislature appears no closer to putting a fiscal plan of any kind into place. The House and Senate spent much of 2017 refusing to find compromise on the fiscal plan even though a majority of legislators support utilizing the earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund to keep the lights on. The House wants a tax, preferably a progressive income tax, while the Senate doesn’t want a tax of any kind. There doesn’t appear to be any softening between these positions, and without that we’re not expecting any action on the restructuring of the permanent fund.
We’re not holding out much hope for a solution in 2018, either. It’s an election year, after all.
It took a few brave individuals to expose sexual harassment in the Legislature, an issue that’s been a long-running reality for many women and men who work in the building. Rep. Dean Westlake resigned after a flurry of allegations came out about his many unwanted, inappropriate sexual advances toward women in the capitol. His colleagues swiftly called for his resignation once the scope of his behavior became clear, but the response was slow and the victims shouldn’t have had to rely on the media for action to be taken against Westlake.
What’s been particularly disappointing about the situation is the efforts by a handful of people both inside and outside the Legislature to politicize the events. Similar to the House, we saw a slow, unserious response in the Senate to allegations against Sen. David Wilson. Though Wilson was eventually cleared of legal wrongdoing for an altercation with a female legislative aide, his response was to hold a news conference attacking the people who dared report what they saw.
The Legislature still has a long ways to go when it comes to sexual harassment and they’d be wrong to think Westlake was an isolated incident.
The oil and gas tax credit bill
The ending of Alaska’s cashable tax credit program was long overdue considering the state’s messy financial situation, but it wasn’t easy. The worst of it came near the end of the second special session at a joint meeting between the House and Senate resource committees. The poorly managed meeting was pitched as a way to review a pending deal on the repeal, but both chambers debuted their own competing versions of legislation. It culminated with Sen. Bert Stedman telling the House to take their bill and “put it in the shredder.”
Some way, some how the Legislature was able to recover and agree on a compromise that passed both chambers with broad support, but in keeping with tradition the Legislature passed House Bill 111 with two hours left in the year’s second special session.
The crime special session
The final special session of 2017 was ostensibly called to give the Legislature one more crack at figuring out a fiscal plan, but scoring political points on crime proved to be far more interesting. The fourth special session convened in late October, and legislators spent the following 30 days ignoring the advice of law enforcement, prosecutors and other experts in favor of anecdotes about crime. What was particularly disappointing about this exercise was the insistence by tough-on-crime legislators that the crime wave started with passage of Senate Bill 91 and will end with the repeal of Senate Bill 91. That’s simply not true. There’s a whole host of reasons behind Alaska’s crime rates, but tough-on-crime legislators seemed content to score a few cheap political points while avoiding talking about real, complicated answers to the real, complicated problems.