It’s that time of week for our stroll down the unsubstantiated, rumor-filled and damp streets of political rumor and gossip.
Just some amount of days remain in the 121-day session.
Walker meeting with Democrats
The Alaska Democratic Party’s state convention is underway in Talkeetna today with the major talk being whether or not Independent Gov. Bill Walker and Democratic Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott will be joining the party’s newly opened primaries. We’ve heard there’s been high-level talks about this among high-level party officials, but no decision has been made yet about whether or not to welcome him with open arms.
Still, there’s plenty of anticipation for the event because both Walker and Mallott have announced they plan to attend the convention complete with campaign booth and a 7 p.m. Saturday address that will “outline the team’s vision and priorities for the second term.” Everyone’s hoping for some more clarity, but who knows.
The cloud of uncertainty around the Democratic primary has been good at keeping other candidates out of the fray, so far. If there’s going to be any development, though, this weekend wouldn’t be a bad place to announce it.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Hawkins announced this week that he’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and is already undergoing treatment with a good prospect for recovery. As someone with a family member who also suffered from pancreatic cancer the news is thoroughly sad, but best of luck on a speedy and full recovery. Hawkins said he plans on staying in the race.
The House had an interesting vote on Thursday when it approved the “let’s pay off the oil tax credits we still owe by taking out a bond” bill, House Bill 331, 23-15. The thing is the Democrat-led House Majority Coalition only voted 8-14 in favor of the bill, and the bill actually was carried to passage by the Republican Minority that voted 14-2 in favor.
It’s a pretty bizarre bill for any majority coalition to allow to go to a vote, but it makes sense when it’s also likely the ask the House Republicans made in return for their support for the three-quarter vote to tap into the constitutional budget reserve.
Beside it being an oil industry-friendly vote, House Bill 331 got the minority support because it’s the closest to a big cut to state spending they’ll get this year. It’ll reduce, at least in the early years, the state operating budget spending by more than $150 million in undesignated general funds.
And, hey, a few more pieces of session are coming together.
That’s roughly the amount of time that we’ve been hearing it’ll take for session to wrap up (it also takes the Legislature nicely past the deadline that would push any referendums out two years). The big remaining pieces are the operating budget (HB 286), the capital budget (SB 142), the restructure of the permanent fund (SB 26) and the oil tax credit bill (HB 331).
Talk has subsided a bit on the possibility of general obligation bond package in the lush style of capital budgets from the days when Alaska was rolling in undesignated general fund dollars. It sounds like it was a big, overly complicated lift that would likely push the session out to its 121-day limit and there’s not a lot of stomach for that right now. It also sounded like the major push for the package was coming from the governor’s office as a way to get the Democrats to sign on with the oil tax credit bonds, but that’s been taken care of.
Still, it sounds like a lot of things are in flux and leadership from both chambers have been spotted going in and out of meetings with increasing frequency this week.
But don’t expect much to happen over the weekend as word is many legislators are planning on taking the weekend off once again.
A bad look
There’s been a lot of talk around the capitol about the distillery serving cocktails issue and its lead opponent, the bar-owning Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks. Wool’s been pretty solidly opposed to legislation that would allow distilleries to serve cocktails (like they’ve been doing since the law first passed in 2014) because of the impact it’d have on the existing bar business and has stood in the way of a standalone fix for the issue.
All taken together, it’s raising a lot of eyebrows both in the building and in Wool’s district with the general consensus being that while it’s not technically a conflict of interest under the Legislature’s pretty skimpy conflict of interest rules it’s a bad, bad look.
One observer pointed out that Wool’s concerns about the distilleries cutting into the business and value of existing bar’s liquor licenses sounds a heckuva lot like the taxi cab companies’ concerns with Wool’s bill that opened the doors to ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber. There was a lot of talk about the free market, evolving taste and consumer choice around that one. Why not extend it to the distilleries?
A fix of sorts
Still, for all the ire Wool has drawn on the distillery cocktail issue, it does appear that his promise to address the issue in Senate Bill 76, the Senate’s far-ranging alcohol law update that’s now in the House Labor and Commerce Committee, has been kept… just maybe not in the way anyone was expecting.
The latest version released today does specifically allow distilleries to mix their alcohol with non-alcoholic mixers (so, no Manhattans), but it does come at the cost of an additional $1,250 license that’s got some pretty strict population limits. Distilleries that don’t want to pony up for the additional license will still be able to serve cocktails, but they’ll get their serving limit cut from two drinks down to one.
It doesn’t end there. There’s also talk about potential punitive amendments targeting distilleries and breweries in the pipeline, like a CHARR-favored rule that would require manufacturers to sell 80 percent of their product through wholesalers.
A distiller we spoke with said this would be a far more grave issue for breweries than it would be fore distilleries. Bottling carbonated beverages, it turns out, is more expensive than bottling liquor.
Denali road lottery
The Denali Road lottery is now open. Definitely don’t go apply for it.
Gov. Bill Walker’s projects director John-Henry Heckendorn’s last day in the governor’s office was last week as he left to join Walker’s campaign. Heckendorn oversaw communications and policy for the governor, a job that has been split up with Amanda Moser taking over as communications director and Heather Parker taking over as policy director.
Murkowski backs Mueller
Alaska’s U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has officially come out in support of legislation protecting special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into election collusion, giving a pretty fiery interview about the investigation and President Trump’s attempts to undermine it to the News-Miner this week.
It might not surprise you that the great caster of no votes, Rep. David Eastman, doesn’t have a lot of friends in the Alaska Legislature, but after your humble editor’s trip down to Juneau I was surprised to hear that “doesn’t have a lot” is putting it politely. Aside from fellow Republicans pretty openly recruiting a primary challenger, we’ve heard that fellow Republicans aren’t even shy about making fun of him with one legislator allegedly referring to him, just a few feet away from his seat, as a “vampire.”
Is the smoke-free workplaces bill, Senate Bill 63, scheduled for a vote in the House?
No, but we’ve heard it will make it to the floor by the end of session come hell or high water.
Thank to you the many women who’ve reached out with their personal stories about working in politics in Alaska after we put out a call for submissions few weeks ago. We’re planning on having the results out soon (sorry for the delay, but I’d rather do a good job than a fast one), but in the mean time if anyone else wants to share their experiences of working in politics–both good and bad–feel free to find me on [email protected] or on Twitter.