AKLEG Recap, Day 23: Chief Justice Stowers tells legislators ‘Do or do not, there is no try’

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Craig Stowers delivers his State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature on Feb. 8, 2018. (Photo by Alaska Legislature)

The 23rd day of the legislative session is in the books and it was certainly more eventful than the 22nd day. The House has passed an education budget (without a funding source) and Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Craig Stowers delivered his final State of the Judiciary. Here’s what happened and what to look forward to.

Just 67 days to go (and a week until Sen. Dunleavy’s seat needs to be filled).

Education budget clears House without funding source

The House had its first big floor debate of the session over the early funding of some parts of K-12 education. Legislators approved House Bill 287 by a wide 32-5 margin, but there weren’t the votes to make a withdrawal from the constitutional budget reserve. The three-quarter CBR vote failed along caucus lines, which isn’t that surprising. The minority Republicans are unlikely to hand over the one major piece of leverage a minority has over the budget process so early in the session even if it means taking a politically difficult vote. Minority Republicans argued that the money would be better taken from the general fund, while some majority members acknowledged the challenge of the CBR vote.

We’ll have more on this today.

But for now, here’s the votes:

State of the Judiciary

Chief Justice Craig Stowers delivered his final State of the Judiciary address to the Alaska Legislature on Wednesday, sneaking in one last handful of sci-fi references by telling the Legislature “Do or do not, there is no try” when it comes to the budget and calling fellow Alaska Supreme Court Justice Daniel Winfree “Young Jedi.”

As he’s done at previous addresses to the Alaska Legislature, Stowers focused on the ways the Alaska Court System is coping with budget cuts and trying to do more with less at a time when court services are facing a growing demand. One of the most major changes was closing courts to most activities on Friday afternoon to save about $2 million, cutting employee pay by about 4 percent. Stowers said the court system could have balanced the budget with layoffs, but said “Widespread layoffs are morale killers.” He said morale in the court system is good given all the challenges.

Other takeaways:

  • Stowers said the Alaska Court System is already doing a review of its zero tolerance anti-sexual harassment policies. The court hasn’t faced any such issues, at least publicly, but Stowers said “I’m not so naive to think it can’t happen here,”
  • A third of judges will be replaced over the next year in what Stowers called a “sea change” for the court system. He said the courts will face a loss of institutional knowledge, but said he looked forward to bringing in new perspectives to the court system. He also commended the Alaska Judicial Council multiple times for its work in helping recruit quality judges.
  • Stowers said all sorts of court filings are upticking in recent years, calling the trend “ominous.”
  • The court system is asking for the Legislature to convert a soon-to-be-vacant district court judgeship into a superior court judge, which would allow the Juneau courts to better handle the variety of cases it sees. He said he’s not asking for any additional funding for the change, and that any increased costs will be absorbed by the system. The change is included in HB 298 and will be heard in the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee this morning.

Distillery bill advances

Speaking of the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee, the distillery cocktail bill House Bill 269 was also scheduled to be taken up today and was expected to advance. It did just that, and advanced as this article was being written. Minority Republican Reps. Dan Saddler and Dave Talerico both registered opposition to the bill, echoing talking points by the bar and restaurant interest group CHARR. They both argued that allowing distilleries to serve cocktails blurs the line between bars and distilleries and this could be a slippery slope down that path. Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, said she’s actually visited a few distilleries and says she sees no such problem and the legislation protects people who’ve already made significant investments in distilleries.

Egan unfiltered

Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan announced on Tuesday that he’s retiring and on Wednesday he took off his already-loose filter. At the Senate Minority press conference, he told reporters and the Legislature, “I’m going to be a pain in your rears until at least next January.”

When asked about Senate Republicans’ interest in cutting Medicaid spending and Medicaid work requirements, Egan blasted his colleagues.

“It’s really easy to criticize Medicaid funding when you already have health insurance,” he said.

Getting along

If you ever wanted to see a Senate committee get along with the Walker administration, the Wednesday Senate Resources Committee was it. There, Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth and Chief Assistant Attorney General Seth Beausang gave an update on the state’s battles with the federal government over all sorts of issues like navigable waters, the roadless rule, timber sales and the King Cove road. The administration is clearly taking a pretty scrappy, litigious approach to dealing with federal laws and regulations on Alaska. It seems like the courts are a faster way to get things done when dealing with the feds. It was music to the ears of the senators, particularly when it came to resource development.

“All the news you’ve had so far is good news,” said Sen. Bert Stedman at one point.

Raw milk shelved

Rep. Geran Tarr’s House Bill 217 debuted an updated version in the House Resources Committee on Wednesday, and raw milk is no longer covered in the bill. The legislation largely focuses on direct-to-consumer sales at farmers markets and similar, exempting such sales as long as they’re direct to consumer and less than a gross sale of $25,000. It doesn’t cover poultry or live animals.

It’s a similar bill of sorts to one put forward by Rep. Tammie Wilson in 2012, which included a skit about an overzealous food inspector and a humble seller at a farmer’s market.

Tarr’s bill got positive public testimony on Wednesday, from plenty of Delta Junction-area folks who rely on these sorts of sales for their livelihood.The portion of the bill relating to raw milk, Tarr said, is still being workshopped and will be taken up next week.

“We haven’t given up on raw milk,” she said, adding that it’ll be discussed next week. “We’re determined to figure out a way that works.”

Rep. Chris Birch also asked one of the testifiers about what’s the worst that could happen if you don’t pasteurize milk. The answer? Milk fever.

What we’re reading

  • The state is requesting about $300,000 to build five new public use cabins. It would likely seem like a crazy thing to be requesting in such a tough budget situation, but those public use cabins are money makers with popular ones paying for themselves in a few years. Read: State asks to build more public use cabins to meet demand via The Peninsula Clarion.
  • House District 38 Democrats have selected 25-year-old Ben Anderson-Agimuk as their party chair to help oversee the replacement process of Rep. Zach Fansler. Anderson-Agimuk is currently working for the Legislature. He’s already taking applications and told KYUK that he’s looking for someone who’ll be up to the tough campaign season. Read: Y-K Delta Democrats Select Ben Anderson-Agimuk As Party Chair via KYUK.
  • Apparently Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is the “#1 Anti-Public Land Lawmaker” according to a new story by Outside Magazine. Surprising? Well just ask a Tucson-based environmental group that says “She’s not looking at what’s really good for the future of Alaska.” Hate read: Lisa Murkowski, the #1 Anti-Public Land Lawmaker via Outside.

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