We’re a week away from the one-third point of the legislative session. Budgets are continuing to come together and the Legislature is still finding traction on legislative proposals, but there’s still plenty of room for some prime legislative theater. Here’s some of what happened on Day 23:
Far-right Republican Sens. Mike Shower and Shelley Hughes were joined by Reps. Ben Carpenter, Sarah Vance, Colleen Sullivan-Leonard and Sharon Jackson on Wednesday to pitch a plan to ban binding caucuses, a move that even the legal memo provided by Shower’s office said “may raise issues under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
The senators are fuming over their diminished status in the building following their end-of-session votes against a budget that didn’t contain the full PFD they had made central to their political positions. The Senate Majority, which requires members to vote for budget bills in order to hold power, stripped them of most of their committee chairmanships, which resulted in a significant loss in staff and, in Shower’s eyes, of the ability to represent their districts.
Hughes called such binding agreements “fundamentally un-American,” a line she repeated a few times during the meeting, but said that the plan was “not about spite.”
The crew made several arguments about how the binding caucus process, which has been used by several caucuses regardless of political alignment, undermined the public process because it means legislators have to agree to vote for the budget in order to hold positions of power.
The House minority Republicans who joined in on the press conference mostly freshmen that have never been in a majority. The Republican majority that held power prior to the rise of Democrats also required a binding caucus and had expelled then-Rep. Lora Reinbold after she voted against the budget.
Senators in the majority defended the binding caucus.
“Look, I love my colleagues, but they’re just wrong,” Sen. Josh Revak, R-Anchorage, told the Anchorage Daily News’ James Brooks of Shower’s proposal.
Revak and others said the requirements force members to work together to reach a compromise on the budget. Shower, Hughes and several other Republicans refused to budge on the issue of the dividend last year and never seemed particularly keen on finding a compromise.
The news conference didn’t do much to help the case for the group’s constitutional amendment and accompanying legislation. They quickly turned combative with reporters’ questions with Shower saying at one point “You’re asking the question the wrong way.”
It made the legislators look like sore losers who don’t have the numbers to achieve what they want so they want to change the rules.
Add to it the fact that Shower released a legal memo that seemed to completely undermine the legal backing for the bill. Legislators can request legal memos about whatever they want but they don’t have to release them—and they frequently don’t if they don’t say what the legislator wants.
Instead, the memo highlights several potential legal problems with the measure.
It notes that the Legislature can’t be sued, noting that the only body that the Legislature can answer to is the Legislature. So, the Legislature would be tasked with enforcing the anti-caucus rules.
Additionally, the bill raises issues with the First Amendment’s protections for free speech and association.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy finally dropped his proposal for a statewide lottery on Wednesday. It includes a provision allowing for sports betting in addition to keno, scratch-off tickets and a more traditional draw-style lottery like Mega Millions.
The governor said the legislation, if implemented in full, could raise more than $100 million annually, but a report by KTUU’s Sean Maguire notes ”Department of Revenue officials say that the lower-revenue forecasts are more likely.”
The idea is similar to Rep. Steve Thompson’s House Bill 239, which would allow just a draw-style lottery, that he estimates would raise between about $10 million and $15 million annually.
The bill was submitted a week after Rep. Steve Thompson’s House Bill 239, which proposes to only set up a draw-style lottery. Unlike Dunleavy’s overzealous revenue estimates, Thompson has been more measured about what could be possible revenue-wise with a lottery. His bill estimates revenue between about $5 million and $10 million. It’ll be up for a hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 18.
Pioneer Homes rate bill advances
Legislation seeking to limit rate increases on the Pioneer Home advanced out of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee on Wednesday. House Bill 96 by Rep. Zack Fields is picking up some serious momentum and looks likely to pass the Legislature this session.
The bill would reverse the recent rate increases and set a cap on how much they can increase each year.
State of the Judiciary
Chief Justice Joel Bolger delivered his annual State of the Judiciary address where he thanked court employees for finding ways to work with a reduced budget andmade some requests to the Legislature for funding and legislative changes. He closed with a promise that the court will not bow to outside political and financial pressures, a nod toward Dunleavy’s veto (and continued meddling) with the court budget.
We’ll have more on that in a separate post.
House passes election bills
The House approved a pair of election-related bills on Wednesday.
House Bill 115 would allow voters to sign up to receive by-mail absentee ballots continually. Currently, most voters have to request by-mail ballots for each election. This includes a process where if voters don’t cast a ballot for four years, they’d be removed from the system. It passed on a vote of 24-15.
Department of Law Budget
The House Finance subcommittee on the Department of Law recognized that it can’t force Attorney General Kevin Clarkson to abandon an anti-union lawsuit he hopes will go to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it can try to take away the funding he’s using to hire a Trump-affiliated law firm.
They approved several amendments in a somewhat complicated attempt to put the clamps on the administration. Read more about it here: Legislators can’t stop Clarkson’s anti-union lawsuit, but they can take away his $600-per-hour attorneys.
The House Finance subcommittee on the Department of Health and Social Services got most of its budget work done on Tuesday, including a rejection of a request by the administration for four additional positions in the commissioner’s office. Commissioner Adam Crum said he was seeking a new deputy commissioner and additional staff for oversight on the state’s Office of Children’s Services program, which is related to the recent hiring of former Rep. Tammie Wilson.
Like with several other budget requests from the administration, Crum had difficulty justifying the additional spending. Legislators, even Dunleavy-friendly legislators, agreed that without evidence, they can’t support the nearly half-million dollars in new spending.
“I think that the challenge we’re running into right now is that what this investment in these positions would yield is not entirely clear,” said Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage. “We all know that additional resources can bring some expertise, can bring some bandwidth to the issue, but I think what it is that we need in the Legislature right now is more clarity about what could happen moving forward.”
The committee eliminated all but one of the new positions, a special assistant (it’s unclear if this would be occupied by Wilson or a second hire).
House Minority Leader Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, agreed, but told the administration that he expects to hear a clear update on any progress or challenges during next year’s budgeting.
“When you come back to us next year, if this person can’t do the job, then let us know,” he said. “If the level is not at a point where they can actually do what you’re focusing on then maybe you’ll request the other three,” he said. “I just expect to hear what the reality of what you were able to do with this particular individual.”
Tweet of the Day
After getting his account suspended (with no explanation), everyone’s favorite Twitter climatologist Brian Brettschneider is back!
Hello world! pic.twitter.com/F4RNPS72SM
— Brian Brettschneider (@Climatologist49) February 12, 2020