Welcome to the latest edition of Friday in the Sun, in which your humble editor tries to make sense of this week in Alaska politics while sniffling back a cold. As always, take everything with a grain of salt because, after all, the truth is unknowable.
Update: In one of the lower sections, I made reference to right-to-work laws being on the brink in Alaska when I meant to write Alaska hire laws. Alaska doesn’t have right-to-work laws.
It was really only a matter of time, but this week was the week that sleeve-averse Office of Management and Budget Director Donna Arduin was let go/removed/fired from the administration. According to Chief of Staff Ben Stevens, it was a unanimous decision within the governor’s leadership team made while Arduin was on vacation. Yowch.
Arduin’s ten months on the job will be remembered for incredibly unpopular draconian cuts that helped galvanize political forces throughout Alaska into a fast-moving bipartisan recall effort, for cuts that resulted in hearings where seniors said they were literally going hungry, for a budget that put a Republican governor at odds with a majority-Republican Legislature, for a bunch of transparent attempts to bolster private prisons through the budget, for gaslighting meetings with legislators where concerns were waved away with a smirk and, of course, for her excellent sense of style that put all the Xtratuf-wearing Juneauites to shame.
Stevens also said that the Arduin’s removal had nothing to do with the recall… right.
But as one insider points out, that’s probably not too far from the truth. The recall itself isn’t probably a motivator—after all, there’s an attorney general who’ll happily tie it up in the courts—but the underlying forces that are giving the recall its steam are certainly a motivator.
Unlike certain editorial boards we’re not quite so convinced that the recall effort is a big waste of time and money that could be better spent on individual legislative races, and it’s hard to understate how remarkable it is to see the kind of people who are united by Dunleavy’s disastrous first year in office.
We haven’t seen any recent polling, but we would be surprised if there weren’t polling showing him underwater, which could threaten to trickle down to Dunleavy-allied legislators in the upcoming elections. The budget combined with the governor’s abject failure at delivering on his campaign promise of a $3,000 PFD has got to be taking its toll.
So, chalk it up to semantics but it certainly is a pivot.
The truth of the matter is that Dunleavy and his allies, particularly the also-fired Chief of Staff Tuckerman Babcock (also, why’d he get to keep his full pay when he got demoted to adviser while Arduin will have to take a cut to stick around?), vastly overestimated the kind of mandate they had out of the 2018 election. They won 51 percent of the vote in a race that was fumbled away by the other side, and the legislative victories can also be attributed more to missteps than to yelling about the PFD.
They used their imagined mandate to deliver far-right policies right out of the Koch Brothers’ playbook with a budget that is, at best, disconnected from the political realities of Alaska and, at worst, a vindictive document aimed at inflicting pain and retribution on their political enemies.
While they’re cleaning house and removing the worst offenders, it’s important to remember that this all ultimately falls at the feet of Dunleavy. Either these were precisely the policies he wanted to see, or he was so disinterested in the day-to-day operations and policy goals of the administration that he took a back seat, allowing Babcock and Arduin to run roughshod over Alaskans.
Neither scenario should inspire a heckuva lot of trust from voters. Wasn’t that the goal? Restoring trust?
The Dunleavy administration’s most remarkable accomplishment so far has been just how quickly they’ve burned through all his benefit-of-the-doubt good will moderates might have afforded him, skipping right over the honeymoon period most governors get upon election to the doldrums of ineffective unpopularity.
It’s going to certainly be a steep hole for the administration to climb out of—particularly when Attorney General Kevin Clarkson continues to plug away and budgets continue to be axed in the name of a dividend that politically can’t be delivered—and these changes won’t do much to change the mind of Alaska’s progressives. But it might just help win back the base.
Walk on the wonky side
There’s plenty to be made of the politics of removing/firing/demoting Arduin, but it also presents a notable change for the wonky side of things that has us legislative wonks looking forward to the next legislative session. Namely, that commissioners will be more directly involved in their budgeting process.
It’s hard to say just how much of it was by design from the get-go and how much of it was Arduin’s style of budgeting, but commissioners and their departments were essentially locked out of the process this year.
It left legislators fuming as they struggled to understand the reasoning behind the draconian cuts, while many departments were left in the dark about decisions in ways that created even more headaches and heartburn for the state and the public.
The more direct role of commissioners will hopefully allow legislators to better vet the budget and understand the potential impact of the proposed cuts. Arduin served as an “effective” smokescreen to hide the harsh reality of precisely what a $3,000 PFD and no new revenues meant for the state budget (sneer quotes because the governor is, after all, facing a recall).
Still, the administrative services directors (folks who help administer the budget of a department) that were swept up from departments into Arduin’s OMB will reportedly remain in the OMB for the time being so it’s not all back to normal wonkiness.
PFD Working Group
Speaking of wonkiness, the Legislature’s permanent fund working group is set to meet on Monday, Oct. 7 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Anchorage LIO to “look at models and scenarios that relate to the permanent fund earnings and the budget.”
Hopefully it’ll be more productive than the gripe-fest the Senate State Affairs Committee is holding today on the University of Alaska.
There’s been a fair bit of rumor milling about former Sen. Anna MacKinnon taking over the Office of Management and Budget. There’s been reports of her being spotted in Juneau (though that shouldn’t really be all that salacious given the fact that her husband is the commissioner of the Department of Transportation & Public Facilities).
We’re not entirely convinced about this, but as of this morning we’ve been hearing more concrete rumors along these lines.
MacKinnon would certainly go a long way to earning back the cooperation of the Legislature, but don’t forget that some of the incredibly unpopular proposals pitched this session are similar to some of the incredibly unpopular proposals MacKinnon pitched when on Senate Finance.
The whole let’s-take-away-local-oil-and-gas-property-taxes-as-well-as-the-local-share-of-fishery-revenue proposals pitched by Dunleavy and Arduin are pretty darn similar to MacKinnon’s proposal to eliminate local revenue sharing. She pitched it as a way for communities to help shoulder their share of the financial burden.
MacKinnon’s selection would be likely to raise concerns about the Alaska Constitution’s pesky ban on allowing legislators to take jobs that they either voted to create or voted to give a raise to during any time they were in office for a year after leaving office. Still, the case law on this is, at best, murky with a 2010 AG opinion (from when Nancy Dahlstrom bailed on the Legislature for the first time) saying that, in general, the Department of Law would take this with a strict interpretation even though the courts would view it broadly.
Either way, the clause didn’t seem to be much of a problem for former Rep. Dan Saddler and, again, we bet there’s an attorney general who’d have a case for why these rules don’t apply.
Stevens said an acting director will be named today, so I guess we’ll find out soon.
Speaking about Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, the Department of Law this week announced that it’s eager to make Alaska into the latest test case in undermining public unions. It’s doing so with its lawsuit against the Alaska State Employees Association over dues collection and with a $600-an-hour Outside law firm that specializes in precisely these sorts of things.
The state has a whole explanation of why an Outside legal firm was needed, but it’s more likely that no one wanted to put their name on such a blatantly political case. Isn’t it everyone’s dream to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court?
Update to the update: We’ve also heard talk that the Department of Law at Clarkson’s direction could be looking at halting enforcement of Alaska’s
right-to-work laws Alaska hire laws based on a suit filed this summer. (I messed up this one. I wrote one thing when I heard another and didn’t get it called to my attention until this morning. It’s Alaska hire provisions attached to state-funded projects that could be in jeopardy.)
Along those same lines, the state is reversing course on allowing initiative groups to collect signatures during a legal challenge, leaping at the opportunity to backpedal out of an agreement it inked with the ranked-choice ballot initiative.
Instead of waiting for the latest challenge to play out in courts, Attorney General Kevin Clarkson went ahead and negated on his agreement and ordered the petition booklets to stop being printed.
If allowed to stand, the move deals a serious blow to any pending initiatives hoping to get on the 2020 ballot, including the oil tax initiative. That’s because the groups have to get all their signatures together before the Legislature meets in January if they want to appear on next year’s ballot. Any legal challenge like the election initiative faces could severely cut into signature-gathering time as oral arguments on the ranked-choice initiative aren’t expected until
November late October.
Update: We’ve since been informed that the ballot group has since agreed to withdraw from the prior stipulation that allowed the signature-gathering process to proceed in return to agree to a faster resolution of the underlying case. Oral arguments that were initially planned for November have now been moved to Oct. 21.
Democracy in action! Fun!
Update: One more thing
The Department of Law has reportedly reassigned Harriet Milks, the attorney who assists the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, from her duties with the office. It’s unclear just what the cause was behind the reasoning, but the best guess is that she gave some advice that ran afoul of the administration’s politics. This one’s developing, and we’ll likely be hearing more on this one soon.
Also, given all the various controversies coming out of the Department of Law, its decision to go after organized labor sure is interesting given the backdrop of a Fairbanks judge’s 37-page letter that says the state is failing the criminal justice system.
“The record in this case should reflect that, as a result of the policy and budget choices made by the legislative and executive branches the people of Alaska must tolerate long delays in the prosecution of the type of crimes charged in this case — crimes against women, crimes fueled by substance abuse, crimes against law enforcement officers, crimes against rural Alaskans,” the judge wrote.
We thought the administration (and Legislature, for that matter) was serious about crime. Perhaps union busting is more important.
The latest rumor we’ve heard is that Dunleavy’s spokesman Matthew Shuckerow might be on his way out to help U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan with his re-election campaign.
That’s how much legislators collected in per diem so far this year, according to a report by the Anchorage Daily News. Legislators will look to continue to collect more once the promised supplemental PFD special session is called. Fun!
Twist and (Laddie) Sh-out.
Rep. Laddie Shaw got the ignoble distinction on Thursday of being the only legislative appointee picked by a Republican governor to be rejected by Republicans in the Senate.
While the rejection was shocking, it was pretty much a given since his name was announced. The governor was blatant about the PFD factoring into his decision—which makes his latest accusation that the Senate is unfairly applying a litmus test to the position laughable—and it was destined to crash into the Senate Republicans’ 6-6 split on the dividend.
Dunleavy was probably right to select Shaw from the bunch as he had the best chance of the group to get appointed out of deference to institutional norms, but it wasn’t to be.
The word is that the late Sen. Chris Birch’s daughter, Tali Birch Kindred, would have been a shoo-in for the position.
At this point, what are the odds that the stalemate continues and the Senate goes Mitch McConnell and just keeps the seat open until the 2020 elections?