Welcome to the latest edition of Friday in the Sun, your weekly collection of commentary, gossip and rumor from Alaska’s political world.
We’re in the final days of the 121-day session and the Legislature is doing its best at racing everything to the traditional haphazard finish. Before now and midnight-ish next Wednesday, the Legislature needs to figure out an operating budget, the capital budget, a crime bill of some kind and that little matter of the dividend. But until then, no spoilers.
We’re still really intrigued by the governor’s continued insistence that the Legislature’s forward funding of K-12 schools is unconstitutional. The general thinking when the argument suddenly emerged at the height of the red pen fetishization was that it was all a bid to make K-12 funding vetoable.
Now that he’s promised not to veto K-12 funding, why keep up the fight?
Also isn’t this pretty much what the governor is proposing with the dividend payback? The legislation would forward fund an additional two years of dividend paybacks because of… reasons. Is his largely abandoned and entirely impossible campaign promise of paying back dividends unconstitutional?
There’s a couple schools of thought that we’ve heard. One is that the governor can’t give up the game that this was all about making the money available for a veto in the first place. Others wonder if there’s a plan at all with any of this.
Another insider reminds us that the budget does include education funding, just not for this year. The budget before this Legislature includes language that would fund K-12 education for the 2020-2021 school year. That could be up for veto. It wouldn’t have an impact on this year but would set up a fight over school funding in the next year. Honestly, you can probably count on that at this point.
Still, the whole thing fits into a larger effort by the administration to consolidate power in the executive branch and sweep it away from the Legislature as much as possible. Recall that the budget he submitted to the Legislature would have given the Office of Management and Budget incredible power to move money around within all appropriations in a department. The Legislature promptly deleted this language in every place in the budget.
The power of appropriation rests with the Alaska Legislature and it’s not a power that they’re likely to hand over anytime soon, and we’d hazard a layman’s guess that the courts wouldn’t be particularly keen on it either.
The other issue is that the courts don’t magically just decide to strike down laws as unconstitutional. It requires someone to bring a lawsuit to invalidate the law. Who’s going to go down that path?
That’s when Rep. Chris Tuck plans to have the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee back again to release the statewide audit before everyone leaves Juneau. It also happens to be the final day of the 121-day session and the final day for the Legislature to pass a fully funded budget or have their per diem cut off.
There was a bit of intrigue when Senate leadership in Sens. Cathy Giessel and Bert Stedman protested, with Stedman remarking “You may not have a quorum.” Does that mean the Senate might be planning on being done before May 15 and already out of Juneau?
Turns out the answer is, unfortunately, no.
A closer listening to the hearing shows that the Senate simply doesn’t think they can spare the time on the final day to meet up for that particular hearing. “You might want to consider the schedule … You might want to have some flexibility,” Stedman can be heard during cross talk.
“I’m looking forward to having it on that day. It might not necessarily be on that day, but that’s what we’re looking at right now so we can put it out while we’re all still here,” Tuck said. “It might be May 16, it may be May 14, it may be May 18th. That’s my hope.”
Senate President Giessel also asked if it has to be done in May or could be taken up later in June. The state legislative auditor said the release of the audit is already late so it’s necessary to push ahead with its release sooner than later. May 15 happens to be the earliest it can be out.
The full quote from Stedman turns out to be: “You may not have a quorum, that’s how it goes on the last day.”
So they won’t be done early, but they’re at least shooting to be done on time… As long as you count the 121-day session in the constitution—not the 90-day one in statute—as “on time.”
The Legislature is doing its darnedest to be done “on time” and to do that they’ll need to stick the landing on the crime bill with agreement from the House, Senate and governor. A conference committee with less than a week left is a no-go for legislation like this.
Anyways, suffice it to say that the House Majority Coalition is feeling burned by the administration after it passed over House Bill 49 earlier this week. On the floor, much to the chagrin of the minority, the House majority members said the bill, including the changes made on the House floor with a 20-page amendment, were approved by the governor and his team. It might not be the hardcore, Judge Dredd-esque return to pre-Senate Bill 91 days, but it was good enough.
It came as a nasty surprise, then, that the following day that Criminal Division Director John Skidmore released a statement that the House got it wrong on the marriage as a defense for rape provisions. The original bill proposed repealing the law, but during testimony Skidmore gave an confusing example that seemed to suggest there could reasons to keep the law in place. His statement said the House, “It is unfortunate that some members of the House voted to uphold this archaic law based on a misunderstanding of what I said.”
The House stood by its claims that the administration had signed off on the changes during a Friday morning news conference.
“As far as House Bill 49 when it left this House, it was unequivocally expressed to us that it had the administration’s support,” said Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage.
Rep. Tammie Wilson, the North Pole Republican who’s notably stood up to strong arm attempts by the administration, also said she was disappointed in the administration’s moves.
“I’m really disappointed that it hasn’t been out there broadcasted,” she said. “Every touch that we put on it was with the approval of the administration. We wanted to make sure that we were repealing and replacing SB 91 so that we could move forward with not just the public safety portion but treatment. My question to the administration right now is where is your part of the promise? … Nothing in this bill was a shock to the administration. Nothing we put in that bill was not approved before we did it.”
Summed up in gif form:
Of course, it’s all given the minority House Republicans plenty of opportunity to scream that the majority is pro-marital rape, cutting social media posts, videos and press releases.
From what we’ve heard, it’s left the House Majority Coalition fuming… even more than the news conference quotes would suggest. There’s a feeling that a trap was essentially set by Skidmore here.
We ask, though, what good does it serve?
It seemed that the House, Senate and governor were finally finding some kind of peace on the crime issue, avoiding the need for a costly $1 million-plus special session. Now everyone on every side has to be wondering what to trust.
‘Big Office Caucus’
Add larger offices to the list of minority grievances, apparently.
Wellpath in the news
You might have seen the story about a mentally ill woman who was forced to give birth in prison alone in her jail cell in Florida. Turns out this horrifying event has a link to Alaska.
“While the media attention surrounding this incident has been on the jail itself,” writes a CNN article on the event, “the medical provider hired by the sheriff’s office was the one directly responsible for Jackson’s care.”
That medical provider should be familiar. It’s none other than Wellpath Recovery Services because of course it is. Wellpath is the private for-profit company that the Department of Health and Social Services gave a no-bid, sole-source contract to manage and eventually run the Alaska Psychiatric Institute.
The state finally backed away from the long-term contract it had been hoping to give to the for-profit company, but Wellpath will now only oversee API’s management through the end of this calendar year while the state works out how to legally privatize the facility.
In case more than a thousand lawsuits doesn’t give you an idea of what kind of company Wellpath is, here’s more from the CNN report:
A CNN analysis of federal court records over the past five years shows that the company has been at the center of lawsuits involving at least six different facilities. The lawsuits allege that pregnant women have been subjected to inhumane and dangerous conditions and treatment that in some cases have allegedly led to miscarriages and infant deaths.
Public records also reveal how at least one county that hired the company found medical staff had given Librium, a powerful benzodiazepine, or tranquilizer, to multiple pregnant inmates. Librium’s label recommends against the use of the drug during pregnancy because of potential risk to the fetus.
The Legislature went ga-ga for Vic Fischer this week, when the last living delegate to the Alaska Constitutional Convention arrived in Juneau to give his two cents on Dunleavy’s slate of proposed constitutional amendments. Long story short: He didn’t like them, at one point calling the requirement that the Legislature has to enact voter-approved citizen initiatives on taxes “stupid.”
But the day also included testimony from the well-respected Gordon Harrison, the author behind “Alaska’s Constitution: A Citizen’s Guide.” Harrison has typically shied away from weighing in on political debates, but he did also sound off on the proposed amendments. Here’s what he had to say:
“I think that some of the limits are pretty difficult. The spending limit is particularly unwise, we just have no idea what’s in the future for Alaska,” he said, adding a reference to the incredible boom in oil production seen in the Permian Basin of West Texas. “Nobody has been able to foresee these wild price swings in the price of oil. The future is really unpredictable, and I think a spending limit like the one proposed would be very unwise. We have a spending limit on the books, and it hasn’t been very effective but it was adopted at a time when our spending was at record highs, and now our spending by historical levels are quite low. Enclosing our spending limit at this point, I think, would really be a mistake.”
Here’s a bit of weirdness that’s sat in our notebook unused for a few weeks. The Alaska Landmine reported that Office of Management and Budget Director Donna Arduin made an appearance at Juneau trivia a few weeks ago under the team name of “The Red Pens.” They came in nearly last after having their score reduced by 75 percent “because there were not enough points to go around!”
Anyways, we were told that they correctly answered a question about the infamous “Two Girls One Cup” video.
Now that we’ve handed off the curse of that knowledge to you, we can finally sleep without night terrors.
$34 to $120
That’s how much property taxes in the Fairbanks North Star Borough are expected to go up per $100,000 of assessed value of property under the budget the borough assembly approved on Thursday night. The tax increase is driven largely by lingering uncertainty over just how much the state will fund its existing school bond debt agreements with municipalities.
The governor proposed a wholesale elimination of the funding in his budget. The Senate fully funded it at $99.8 million while the House put half the money in its budget.
In the course of some freelance work, I got a look at how on-site marijuana applications are coming together. That’s to say they’re not really coming together quite yet. As of this week, the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office has received precisely zero applications since the process was opened on April 11.
It’s not entirely surprising given that most municipalities currently ban on-site consumption through specific anti-on-site consumption legislation or through general smoking bans.
Anchorage will be taking a stab on the matter later this month, though, when the Anchorage Assembly takes up an ordinance that would permit on-site consumption of marijuana edibles. Until then, you’ll have to watch old vintage Alaska TV at home high like the Alaska Constitution intended!