Friday in the Sun (Dec. 13): The Crunchy Wrap edition

Friday in the Sun is here

What’s good Alaska! Hello and welcome to the latest edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column that tries to piece together the week that was in Alaska political news, gossip and rumors.

It’s been quite the week with the drop of a surprisingly cut-free budget by the governor, leaving everyone else to fill in the blanks and wonder about what’s next. There’s plenty to chew on between now and when the Legislature gavels in on Jan. 21.

In the meantime, remember to floss once in a while and have a nice weekend!

Curt Der Berget

On Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Mike Dunleavy delivered a curveball when he released a budget that pretty much retreated from all the tough “I’m doing what I said on the campaign trail” talk that defined his first year. His budget makes no cut to overall spending and instead shifts around funding. It pays out a full $3,200 PFD and spends $1.5 billion from the Constitutional Budget Reserve account to balance the budget.

And that’s not to mention the supplemental spending, which includes his request for a $1,400 payback of the 2019 PFD amounting to another $800 million spend out of the Alaska Permanent Fund’s earnings reserve account beyond the spending rules set by the Legislature in 2018.

So much deficit spending is a guaranteed non-starter with the Alaska Legislature, which when not battling over the size of the PFD spent most of 2019 worrying about the state’s savings accounts (which they’ve had no small part in depleting since oil revenue fell apart).

That’s all to say don’t bank on a $4,600 dividend this year.

What’s more interesting is the governor’s seeming disinterest in taking a substantive leadership role with the budget. The takeaway from the press conference, which the governor ducked out at about the 10-minute mark, was to not expect legislation from the administration proposing new taxes. Nor will it be proposing any fundamental changes to the formulas that drive spending on Medicaid or K-12 education.

Instead, the governor has announced a vague plan to hold town hall meetings starting sometime in January.

Taken together, it’s not a particularly inspiring debut for everyone who sent him mountains of red pens nor is it the sort of thing that will take much of an edge off the recall effort. It’s a shrug more than a strong gesture in any particular direction.

I guess, then, his early departure from the news conference (when one source informed us his schedule didn’t have anything on it for the remainder of the meeting) is perhaps more understandable. The fervor of Year One ran up against the political realities.

The governor’s departure from the news conference on Wednesday was also reportedly followed by his departure from the state on Thursday. We’ve heard of the governor was spotted wistfully looking out the window at the Alaska Airliens lounge at the Seattle airport.

Our efforts to find out where he’s going, though, have come up short, but smart money is that he’s on his way to D.C.

New dividing lines

Still, the governor’s budget has ostensibly opened the doors to new revenue and that ought to create for a new and contentious dynamic for legislators if they decide to go down that route.

The Legislature, as it currently stands, is roughly organized along lines set by legislators’ positions on the dividend with the general consensus among the House bipartisan coalition and the leadership of the Senate Majority being: A smaller dividend is better than big cuts.

By injecting the talk of revenues into the discussion, the lines become different.

We’re not suggesting that anyone expect a reorganization based on the governor’s newfound attitude toward revenue, but it’s all to say that new revenues or new taxes are going to be a tough political lift that would potentially strain the existing balance of power and allegiances.

Still, expect the Legislature to go ahead with cutting the dividend for the fifth year in a row before considering new revenue. What was once thought to be political peril has become less of a liability in recent elections.

The hardline full-PFD supporters have talked about compromise in recent months, too, which could make this session the best chance so far to change the dividend formula, but we won’t be holding our breath for such a proposal to cross the finish line.

A new low

In an ongoing effort to not feed the trolls, we typically stay far away from writing about the Republican party’s mouthpiece, but the blog’s attack on Libby Bakalar is too much to ignore.

In a vile post responding to a tweet thread by the former state attorney that discussed her firing by an “anti-Semite who lasted 9 mos” (that’d be Tuckerman Babcock), the site openly wonders if Bakalar is fit to be a mother.

“Her conspiracy theories grow and she is now bringing her children into a ‘holocaust’ fantasy on social media. Some have questioned whether she is able to care for them properly. Is it time for a welfare check or it OK for moms to use their children this way?”

I honestly don’t know what to say. Alone, it’s a shitty thing to write about another person no matter your political differences, but in the grand scheme of things this is a blog with deep connections to the administration and Republican lawmakers, which takes it from trolling to a not-so-harmless threat.

There’s already been a lot said about this. Our friend cartoonist Pat Race has been writing about this a lot on Twitter in the last few days and had this to say:

“Bottom line: No matter where you stand on loyalty pledges or the direction of our state, we should all agree that threatening to wield the power of the state to destroy a person’s family over political differences is stepping across a very bright line.”

Tribal compacting

The Legislature held a hearing this week on tribal compacting agreements between tribes and the state or feds to take over responsibilities like health care, child welfare, public safety and, potentially, education. It’s a hot issue because the governor has announced that he plans to introduce legislation that would create compacts with tribes on education.

Representatives speaking at the meeting seemed open to the idea, with Kawerak CEO Melanie Bahnke (whose raised hand became one of the defining images of the governor’s roadshow earlier this year) telling the hearing “Who better to educate our children than ourselves?”

The details of what such a plan were scarce at the hearing. The administration hasn’t published in-depth details of its proposal and the hearing largely focused on the success of other already-signed compacts on health care.

The takeaway at the meeting is that the success of such a program will largely rely on the specifics of the plan. How much flexibility would the tribally administered K-12 programs have in formulating their own curriculum and integrating their own culture? What will the funding mechanisms look like? What level of accountability will the state require?

One of the most interesting moments came when discussing the current state of education in rural Alaska. One legislator said that it can’t be a total disaster if helped produce the testifiers: Bahnke, former Lt. Gov. Valerie Davidson, Tanana Chiefs Conference general counsel Natasha Singh and Alaska Federation of Natives executive vice president and general counsel Nicole Borromeo.

Bahnke shot back that they are the exception to the rule and that the current system—which frequently struggles to put dedicated, long-lasting teachers in rural communities—undercuts opportunities for young people in rural Alaska.

“I succeeded not because of the education system in Savoonga, but in spite of it. I shouldn’t be the exception. The kids that I grew up with, the kids in my class, were just as smart as me, if not smarter. If given the right opportunities, if given quality tenured educators, if that path to success was available to them and they chose it, they would be Stanford graduates,” she said. “There would be somebody else besides me sitting here. I’m an exception to the rule because I left for two years and was able to get education outside of my village.”

As far as the governor’s proposal for tribal compacting on education, both the testifiers and legislators said there will be significant attention put to understanding and vetting the ideas. They didn’t promise a swift approval for the governor’s plan. House Speaker Bryce Edgmon said the legislation will be assigned to the House’s remarkable Tribal Affairs Committee.

Private prisons

That hearing was just one of two big legislative hearings that were held this week. The other was hosted by the House State Affairs Committee to vet the administration’s inexplicable drive to send prisoners to private out-of-state prisons instead of reopening the Palmer Correctional Center as legislators requested earlier this year.

The hearing put into sharp focus the tremendous problems with such a proposal.

The committee heard a mountain of testimony about how previous policies that shipped inmates Outside gave a foothold for gangs in Alaska, including the violent white supremacist 1488 gang that was implicated in a murder among several other charges earlier this year.

The Department of Corrections only announced its plan to ship inmates Outside late this year, informing legislators that it couldn’t reopen the Palmer Correctional Center on time. Internal documents released at the hearing showed the internal estimate for reopening the prison was about 9 months, which would have put the reopening a few months away if they had launched the process when the Legislature expected.

Now the administration is pointing to staffing problems at Alaska’s prisons as the main driver to look to a private contract for prisoner housing, telling the committee that prisons are already understaffed by about 90 positions. The Palmer Correctional Center would require another roughly 70 employees. Those claims haven’t’ sat well with the correction officers union, which has accused the administration of manufacturing the staffing shortages.

“Governor Dunleavy and Commissioner Dahlstrom are endangering the public, Correctional Officers, and inmates by manufacturing a staffing crisis in order to justify their ideological desire to privatize Corrections,” the Alaska Correction Officers Association said in a scathing news release from October responding to news. “The Governor’s decision to send incarcerated Alaskans out-of-state to private prisons jeopardizes the safety of Alaskans. When inmates, previously warehoused in private prisons, returned to Alaska, it resulted in more crime and Alaska victims.”

Just why the administration is so insistent on pursuing this is still hard to explain, but it’s increasingly hard to ignore the fact that the two most significant efforts at privatization—this and the Alaska Psychiatric Institute—under the Dunleavy administration would put money into the pockets of private prison companies and that now-departed Budget Director Donna Arduin also happened to have ties to private prison companies.

It’s fishy, at best.

144 calls

Wondering about how the privatization of the Alaska Psychiatric Institute is going? The Anchorage Daily News just released a new report with this line: 

“As of Nov. 14, police had been summoned to API 144 times in 2019, at a time when the hospital has been operating far under its capacity of 80 beds. The patient census has not topped 47 this year.”

One last ride

Ahead of the upcoming session, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner is writing up a series of excellent profiles on the legislators in the Interior Delegation. That includes Senate Rules Committee Chair John Coghill, R-North Pole, in which he said he plans to run for office one last time.

“The last 20 has just been one adventure after another,” Coghill told the paper. “Like I said, I don’t think I’ve ever been bored.”

A strong conservative voice in the Legislature, Coghill has still earned a mountain of respect from all across the political spectrum as an honest, straight-speaking and principled legislator.

Five years is far away, but the vacancy in that seat will certainly be interesting.

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

With the legislative session a month and change away, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about whether I’ll be heading down to Juneau for session. I haven’t really decided, but the Juneau Empire’s report on the Imperial Grill has made—BY FAR—the best case for schlepping down to “the dark wet recesses of a cave called Juneau.”

Bask in its girthy glory and have an excellent, Crunchy Wrap-filled weekend:

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