Saturday in the Sun (Feb. 8): The ‘I’ll get back to you’ edition

Friday in the Sun is here

Welcome to the latest edition of Friday/Saturday in the Sun, where we try to make sense of the news, gossip and innuendo from the Alaska political world. Digging through rumors is plenty of fun but remember that rumors are just that—rumors. Take everything with a grain of salt, use your brain and, as always, keep watchin’ the skies.

I’ll have to get back to you with an anecdote

The first three weeks of the legislative session have been packed with meetings of the finance committees and finance subcommittees, not only giving legislators an opportunity to unpack the governor’s budget proposal but also try to exert some oversight over the administration’s actions.

I write “try” because the last three weeks of meetings have been absolutely packed with the administration’s promises to get back to the committee with information and vague anecdotes to support the administration’s positions. It’s been frustrating for a lot of watchers, who’ve commented that it often looks like the administration is trying to run out the clock on meetings.

Still, it’s a marked improvement over last year when the administration more or less successfully stonewalled the Legislature behind the indifferent smirk of former OMB Director Donna Arduin. In the three weeks, commissioners have faced tough questioning—with varying levels of success—and it’s given the public a better look at what’s going on with the administration.

Some of the performances, though, explain why the administration might have been so eager to keep commissioners away from the Legislature last year.

We’re talking, mainly, about Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka’s not-so-great explanation of why, after years of the state telling everyone that REAL ID was a big deal, that it wasn’t really that big of a deal after all. Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, brought the fire when she suggested that tribal IDs could be an easy alternative to state-issued IDs.

“Do your homework,” Hoffman scolded her, not even wasting the breath to tell her what pretty much anyone would be able to tell you: That tribal IDs aren’t that widespread in Alaska and the ones that are out there aren’t REAL-ID compliant (because, surprise, that’s also a requirement from the TSA).

From what we’ve heard, Hoffman isn’t alone in being outraged at her ignorance about rural Alaska. It also does little to allay the ongoing concerns legislators have with the administration’s seeming lack of urgency for issues facing rural Alaska. See also the lack of funding for troopers and difficulty on getting a clear answer on where all these new troopers will be stationed.

A storm could be brewing.

As far as the actual budget process goes, the House Finance Committee’s subcommittee process is starting to wrap up with most expected to closeout their work on department budgets in the coming week. A few stragglers could run over into the following week, but that will allow the House Finance Committee to get on with its revised version of the budget.

Expect to see money for things like the ferry system and possibly the university make an appearance. It will be interesting to watch for places where the Legislature might deliver cuts in an effort to put the clamps on some of the administration’s more… creative spending like all these sole-source, no-bid contracts and politically loaded lawsuits.

‘There is hope’

One committee that finally got the answers it’s been looking for is the House Finance subcommittee on the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. It’s been the main venue in the House for legislators to press the administration on the state of the Alaska Marine Highway and is armed with ferry defenders Reps. Louise Stutes, Andi Story and Dan Ortiz.

Friday’s meeting included, finally, a detailed cost estimate for what it would take to close the lengthy service gaps in the ferry system. As it stands, the governor’s proposed budget would leave parts of the state without service for as much as 14 weeks.

Closing the gaps by 50 percent would cost the state $3.2 million in UGF and a 100 percent closure in would cost the state $5.4 million. The big cost, though, would come in the capital budget to bring the state’s fleet back into working order with estimates of $7 million and $23 million for the two scenarios. Currently all mainline ferries are tied up due to last year’s budget cuts or mechanical failures.

AMHS Business Development Manager Matt McLaren told the committee that the second proposal would be sustainable but noted that it wouldn’t necessarily prevent future service outages if there are unexpected breakdowns.

“To me, this is a long-term sustainable level of service, but I do want to point out that … this is still bare-minimum service,” he said. “This is a perfect-world scenario. If there are breakdowns or other things that come up there could still be some service gaps. … It will certainly minimize a lot of the problems we have right now.”

Of course, the news comes with the caveat that the administration—other than public statements saying they support the ferry system—hasn’t committed to supporting any significant increases to the ferry system. And while it’s requesting additional supplemental money in the supplemental budget, it’s just to get the system back up to its severely reduced schedule.

Additionally, the information also happened to be delivered on Deputy Commissioner Mary Siroky’s last day in the position. According to an official statement from the state, she’s “re-retiring.”

All of that aside, the new information was music to Stutes’ ears.

“This is one of the best conversations I’ve had yet so far in regard to ferries,” Stutes proclaimed. “There is hope.”

Senate on simmer

The bitter divide among Senate Republicans seems to have been reduced to a simmer after the roiling first few days of session. At least for now, the issue of redistricting seems to be keeping things under control as the departure of Dunleavy-aligned Republicans would almost certainly require a reorganization of the Senate, potentially putting Democrats closer to that decision.

Political insiders have noticed that Sen. Mike Shower has been racking up the unexcused absences on the Senate floor and is getting on the scruffy side of things. Meanwhile, Sen. Lora Reinbold can’t make it through even a special order without complaining about her reduced staff.

On a committee side of things, the Senate Finance Committee contracted from nine to seven members, giving the boot to Dunleavy-aligned Republican Sens. Shower and Peter Micciche. The difference has been significant as it gives rural Alaska-representing Sens. Hoffman, Donny Olson, Bert Stedman and Click Bishop a majority on the committee.

It’s made for great watching.

Sorry, Santa Claus

House District 3 Republicans met in North Pole last night to nominate their slate of candidates to fill the vacancy left behind by the resignation of Rep. Tammie Wilson (which, by the way, check out this story detailing the administration’s ineptitude in its hiring of Wilson). The names the district’s forwarding are Mike Prax, Fred Villa and Tom Studler.

Former Rep. Doug Isaacson didn’t make the list, which isn’t entirely surprising given the district’s bad blood between Republicans. As North Pole mayor, Isaacson faced an unsuccessful recall attempt.

We’ve heard some rumblings that slate could be causing some friction between the minority Republicans and the district. Unsurprisingly, I don’t have great insight into these innerworkings but keep in mind that the 15-member minority Republicans are in an increasingly precarious position when it comes to membership on the House Finance Committee.

Drop to 14, and the minority loses one of its three seats on the House Finance Committee.

I’d assume that whoever is appointed out of North Pole would be expected to caucus with the minority Republicans and bring the caucus to 16 members but if they don’t, it would become tempting to try to poach a minority member with the promise of a House Finance Committee seat. This isn’t without precedent, either. That’s exactly what happened when Rep. Lindsay Holmes defected in 2013.

Still, that’s all a long way away. Republicans would need to sign off on whoever’s selected by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Speaking of which, this is probably serves as a ringing endorsement for Prax.


If you’ve been enjoying the comic collaboration between TMS and Pat Race at Alaska Robotics, head over to Alaska Robotics in downtown Juneau where Pat has put up a gallery show of the comics! You can take home framed copies of the prints and it sounds like prints might be coming soon.

Romance is in the air

Hall of Fame

The Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame announced its class of 12 women that will be inducted on April 28. Per the organization’s news release, here’s the inductees:

  • Monica Anderson, chaplain and community engaged leader from Providence Hospital;
  • Reyne Athanas, Bethel artist and activist for the past 46 years;
  • Sarah Eliassen, an educator with a passion for the outdoors and Girl Scouts;
  • April Ferguson, the executive vice president and general counsel of Bristol Bay Native Corporation;
  • Karleen Grummett, Juneau author of the “Alaska’s Empty Chair” about Japanese internment of a classmate;
  • Peggy Mullen, civic leader and business owner in the Kenai-Soldotna community;
  • Sandy Poulson, co-owner of the “Sitka Sentinel” and a community activist for decades;
  • Fran Rose, educator and entrepreneur in Anchorage and Juneau, University of Alaska Regent and UA enthusiast; and
  • Judith Slajer, first woman borough manager in Ketchikan, then in Fairbanks and a catalyst for the Alaska Municipal Bond Bank.

Plus former giants:

  • Norma Goodman, television pioneer in Anchorage and Alaska;
  • Nancy Gross, city manager and community educator from the Aleutians to Anchorage for 30 years;
  • Jane Mears, one of the founders of the first school in Anchorage and created civic structures throughout the Territory for 30 years.

A ride home

It’s been an heartbreaking week for Alaska following the news of a plane crash that took five lives and as well as a fire that destroyed much of the Kaktovik school.

Amid the loss, Mark Springer, who lives in Bethel, took to Twitter to write about traveling to rural Alaska by plane. I think it was an important thing to write, especially in light of the callous and, frankly, ignorant suggestion that the state should turn its back on helping its rural and coastal communities because they “CHOOSE” to live there. He gave us permission to republish it here:

If you’ve never flown in the Bush, let me paint you a vignette. You WANT to get home. You just want to. You call your family and ask, “How’s the weather.” You are in a “terminal” with anywhere from half a dozen to half a hundred people, friends, relatives and strangers.

Sometimes you sit all day, sometimes you sit for days. You KNOW the weather is good at home, you KNOW the other airlines made it. You might have been at the hospital with a sick child, or escorting an Elder. Coming home from a meeting, making your last connection from Anchorage.

You are checked in, sitting, talking, sipping coffee or, if it’s been a long wait maybe you are eating order food, or watching some others eat. Its as boring as you let it be. Maybe there’s a TV on just making background noise.

You hear other planes being called. The pilot come out and announces “Passengers for…” and as the pax come up he reads names from the manifest.

Sometimes the announcement comes, “Passengers for…, that flight is on hold” or cancelled. Back to square one, if you are on Medicaid travel the re-booking dance begins. You go back to the hospital to get a new reservation, and hopefully a place to stay.

If you are going home and on your own you need to find a place to stay, hopefully with relatives or friends.

Finally YOUR flight gets called. You “meet your pilot at the door.” Someone is always in the bathroom but you won’t leave without them. Babies and carry-ons get gathered up.

You get outside and the pilot points to your plane, either a Caravan (turbine engine) or a 207.

Maybe you have flown with the pilot, maybe not. You hope he knows the country and the weather.

You take off, with the engine noise filling the cabin. You look out the window as the airport falls beneath you, and you look off into the horizon at the weather, and glance at the pilot watching him fly.

Depending on the plane, it might be a tight fit for the 5 to 12 passengers (maybe more if there are lap babies).

Eventually, you can see home, if it’s nighttime you see the lights. The pilot lines up the approach, which you hope will be smooth.

And then you land, hopefully to a waiting ride home.

RIP to the pilot and passengers who perished this afternoon. Hopefully, their ride home was waiting for them.


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