Welcome to the latest edition of Friday in the Sun, a weekly column attempting to make sense of the week’s news, rumors and gossip from the Alaska political world (well, mostly the Alaska legislative world). As always, things in here are—at best—loosely checked for accuracy so use your head and never trust anyone.
The Recall (revised and expanded as of Saturday morning)
With several months already lost to delays, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled today the campaign to remove Gov. Mike Dunleavy from office shouldn’t wait any longer and cleared the Recall Dunleavy campaign to begin collecting signatures. It’s expected that it’ll take a week or maybe more for the state to get the petition booklets printed and distributed to candidates, but it looks like things are underway.
The group will need to hit the 71,252-signature mark to call a special election with the election occurring between 60 and 90 days after submission. The state and the anti-recall Stand Tall with Mike group have sought to push the vote, if it happens, to the primary or general election, but this means it could happen sooner.
The group collected nearly 50,000 signatures last summer when the state was particularly fired up about the governor’s vetoes. Whether or not that will carry over into the second round has yet to be seen, but it seems like the administration is giving people plenty of reasons to sign whether it’s the administration’s dismal handling of the Alaska Marine Highway System, its funneling of contracts to political allies (more on that below) or the cold-hearted approach to Pioneers Home rates to just name a few.
Add to that the governor’s failure to deliver anything close to his core campaign promise of a full dividend and his abandonment of serious cuts to the budget, and you’d have to imagine that his supporters likely aren’t thrilled about going to bat for him.
It’s probably no surprise, then, that Tall Mike spent most of this week, which featured pro-ferry rallies around the Alaska, Outside. He apparently made an appearance at Safari Club International’s convention—where captive-bred lion hunts were allegedly being auctioned off—in Las Vegas last week. We’ve heard rumblings that Dunleavy has spent much of this week in Washington, D.C. attending several low-profile fundraisers for Stand Tall With Mike, the independent expenditure group that’s defending Dunleavy against the recall effort.
Though such coordination would typically be super illegal because it would be coordination between a candidate and an independent group, it’s OK because this isn’t technically a candidate election.
The question is whether or not we’ll ever get a look at the group’s finances. Because there’s no election currently slated, the both Stand Tall with Mike and Recall Dunleavy don’t currently have to disclose any of their fundraising and spending. We’ll only get to find out what’s been going on IF either campaign carries over funds. They could make a clean break and keep any spending during this period a complete secret.
The governor’s need to turn to Outside has to make you wonder about his ability to do any serious in-state fundraising (a question one could also raise about Recall Dunleavy because, again, who knows?). Still, we’ve heard Dunleavy has called up several conservative political donors to ask not that they donate to Stand Tall with Mike but that they please don’t contribute to Recall Dunleavy (whoops, too late).
Anyways, the governor’s seeming preference to spend time in the friendly conservative circles of D.C. makes politicos wonder/hope that perhaps he’s auditioning for a role in the federal government (honestly seems like wishful thinking, but who’s knows?). Trump and Dunleavy have, after all, had plenty of… flattering things about each other (“Look at that man. He’s all man, look at him”).
So, hey, I guess that’s something to consider when heading to the polls this fall.
All that aside, the governor has painted himself into an impossible spot with his first year in office. Regardless of the reasoning (recall politics, the change in cast in the governor’s leadership team or something else), there are a lot of ways the administration has moderated out in its second year. It’s certainly not uniform, but there are some parts that seem to be shifting in the direction of Parnell-style unexciting pro-industry conservative that’d be more palatable to the establishment crowd.
(Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some real peak year one stuff going on. It’s not nearly full Parnell, quite yet.)
But the stink of the first year and the fallout of decisions made in partisan haste–running the ferry system into the ground, misjudging Medicaid cuts and ramping up rates on Pioneer Homes–are still dogging the administration today. Many of the key bad actors–former OMB Director Donna Arduino and former chief of staff Tuckerman Babcock–are long gone. You’d think Dunleavy’d be putting in extra time to, you know, act like a leader and pull things together but, hey, I guess he has his priorities.
Speaking of the 2020 presidential election, money-having rich guy Mike Bloomberg picked up the endorsement of Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz last week.
The whole thing, first reported by Politico, seemed pretty odd until we were reminded that Bloomberg wrote the city a $1 million check in 2018 for, as was explained by Alaska Public Media, “setting up the Solutions for Energy and Equity through Design Lab, a cross between a think tank and community art space overseen by the Anchorage Museum.”
“Michael Bloomberg, of all the candidates in the race, Democrat or Republican, has the greatest ability to unite this country. And I think that the divide that is splitting America apart poses the greatest threat to our country that we’ve seen in generations,” Berkowitz said in an interview with Alaska Public media.
Also, hey, it’s not that unusual. Here’s an enlightening thread by journalist Blake Zeff:
<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>The degree to which Michael Bloomberg is using his fortune to fundamentally alter & manipulate U.S. politics to his personal advantage extends way beyond ads. I've worked against him, covered him as a journalist & worked with his top aides. Here’s their playbook: (1/17)</p>— Blake Zeff (@blakezeff) <a href=”https://twitter.com/blakezeff/status/1227976156936171520?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>February 13, 2020</a></blockquote> <script async src=”https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script>
Feb. 18 (Corrected, SORRY!)
That’s the deadline to sign up as a dang ol’ Democrat if you want to be able to vote BY-MAIL in Alaska’s April 4 Democratic presidential primaries (Republicans won’t be holding one this year). And you have until Feb. 24 to actually request the by-mail ballot. You can register up to election day if you’re cool with ol’ fashioned in-person voting at the party’s polling places (and there’s even a way of still request. Last time around, Alaska came in only second to Vermont in terms of—sigh—Feelin’ the Bern but that was back in the day of the caucuses so who knows this time.
Maybe Alaska will be Klobucountry?
Wow, I’m honestly surprised that I’ve made it this far into the column without having to resort to filling space with legislative session new. Let’s get to it.
Don’t hate the player, hate the game
Bench-warming legislators got together this week to prove precisely why they’re no longer invited to board game night anymore.
Sen. Mike “Dozer” Shower and company want to abolish the binding caucus and aren’t concerned about what constitutional protections it may trample. In a truly odd turn, Shower also released a legal memo that says his legislation would very likely violate the First Amendment (remember that legislators are not obliged to release legal memos and certainly not ones that say their legislation would be laughed out of the courtroom).
And, hey, we’ve heard that, ACTUALLY, that memo was about a prior version of his proposal.
So, leave it up to Sen. John Coghill, who not only gets invited to board game parties but can be counted on to bring non-alcoholic beverages, to order up a legal memo on the new version. Surprise, it’s pretty much the same.
The whole exercises’ only accomplishment appears to be to make House Minority Rep. Lance Pruitt seem pretty reasonable when he came to the defense of the binding caucus. It makes us think that if Shower and buddies had their way they still wouldn’t be invited to the party.
We don’t often peak into the conservative infighting all that often, but the stench of the feud between the WAYYYYYY out there Alaska Right to Life and Republican Rep. Kelly Merrick has become impossible to ignore.
If you need an explanation, the anti-abortion Alaska Right to Life is real mad with Merrick about her vote against Rep. David “Porn Kills” Eastman’s attempt to get his anti-abortion bill out of committee and has been going after her mercilessly on Facebook. Dig into the comments and you’ll find members throwing around phrases like “child sacrifice lovers.”
Rep. Sara Rasmussen, an Anchorage Republican who happened missed the vote, came to Merrick’s defense on one post only to get lumped in with Merrick for missing the vote.
“Fake news,” Rasmussen wrote, wading into the comments to explain the difference between a procedural vote and an actual vote on a bill as if there’s any way to reason with the anti-child sacrifice crowd.
“There’s a reason Alaska Right to Life was disowned by the national organization,” Rasmussen eventually conceded. “It’s becoming more clear as to why that happened.”
The House Minority even ended up calling a news conference to touch on the situation. For some reason, we doubt any amount of careful explanation of legislative process will change their minds but, hey, best of luck. Ya reap what ya sow, and all.
The F in FSC is for “Fun.”
House finance subcommittees are closing out fast. It’s been a real challenge to keep up, but here’s a quick rundown of some of the highlights off the top of my head:
- Added an additional $18.7 million (of UGF and DGF) to the Alaska Marine Highway System to restore “basic, minimal” but year-round service to coastal communities. The service still needs an additional $23 million in the capital budget for repairs, which MIGHT have the potential for some federal bucks to flow in, but it’s a start.
- Passed several amendments taking the administration to task for the $441,000 no-bid contract awarded to Clark Penney, grandson of Dunleavy booster Bob Penney (more on that below). They can’t halt the contract because it was conveniently inked by the semi-independent Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (which also happens to be able to ink no-bid contracts of this size).
- Passed even more amendments to put the clamps on Attorney General Kevin Clarkson’s dreams of getting an anti-union lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court through a $600,000 contract that just so happens have been awarded (through the competitive bid process, at least) to a Trump-friendly law firm.
- Restored the $334,700 to the judiciary that Dunleavy vetoed because he didn’t like that the Alaska Supreme Court struck down an anti-abortion law (interestingly, this 3-2 vote could have been stopped if Rep. Laddie Shaw had bothered to show up to the meeting).
- Rejected the governor’s attempt to cut, for a second time, the dairy inspector. The administration has conceded the cut would essentially kill the commercial dairy sector in Alaska even though there’s more interest in it than last year. It also restored funding for the Ocean Ranger program, which Dunleavy vetoed into oblivion last year.
- Rejected Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum’s attempt to add four more positions to his office, including a new deputy commissioner to oversee the troubled Office of Children’s Services. Instead, they just approved a single special assistant position (unclear if this would go to former Rep. Tammie Wilson or would be a new hire). Even Dunleavy-friendly Rep. Lance Pruitt said he didn’t see the justification for nearly a half million dollars in new spending.
- Restored funding for the Suicide Prevention Council’s grants.
- Rejected all but one of the governor’s 13 proposed changes to the Department of Fish and Game. Eight of the rejected changes would have cut fisheries management by $1.1 million and instead added an additional $94,100 for the Prince William Sound otolith program.
- Added $1 million for public broadcasting grants.
Detailed rundowns of the actions can be found on the Legislative Finance Division’s website as each committee closes out.
With the subcommittees wrapping up their work, the recommendations will now head to the House Finance Committee. The committee has the budget on the agenda every day next week with public testimony set to start on Wednesday night and run through Saturday. The public testimony schedule is as follows:
- Wednesday, Feb. 19: 5-6 p.m. Juneau; 6:45-8 p.m. Sitka, Petersburg, Delta Junction, Unalaska, Dillingham, Glennallen and Tok
- Thursday, Feb. 20: 5-6:30 p.m. Fairbanks; 6:45-8 p.m. Homer, Kenai, Ketchikan, Kodiak, Mat-Su and Seward
- Friday, Feb. 21: 5-6:45 p.m. Anchorage; 7-8 p.m. Bethel, Cordova, Kotzebue, Nome, Valdez, Wrangell and Utqiagvik
- Saturday, Feb. 22: Noon-3 p.m. Free-for-all
Testimony is limited to 2 minutes per person and can be delivered at the communities’ legislative information offices. People without access to a legislative information office can call 465-4648 before 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday to request the call-in number. Written testimony can also be sent to [email protected] by 5 p.m. on Saturday.
Watering down waterways
Word’s going around outside the capitol (for once) that the House Majority won’t stand in the way of Rep. Chuck Kopp’s House Bill 138, which would essentially make it impossible for the state to make Outstanding National Resource Waterway designations. The legislation is a Parnell-type of bill in that it’s immensely boring, complicated and ultimately pro-development.
Making the case that science, not politics, should be used to decide what waters deserve high protections against development, Kopp’s bill seeks to make the process highly political by requiring the Legislature to sign off on any waterway protections.
Currently, the state has refused to make any such designations on its own, so the bill’s emergence isn’t raising the loudest of alarm bells around the state. As we understand, folks in Southeast Alaska are pretty fired up but the rest of the state seems a little more mixed.
The Legislature is continuing to twist what screws it can on the administration over the no-bid, sole-source contract worth a total of $441,000 that was awarded to Clark Penney, grandson of Dunleavy booster Bob Penney who gave the pro-Dunleavy independent expenditure group $350,000 (See, who says government can’t create value!)
The latest revelation comes from the Alaska Landmine’s Jeff Landfield who got his mitts on an internal document that suggests, surprise, the Dunleavy office did request the contract! (Also, in what is surely a coincidence, the Alaska Landmine has been facing a concerted effort to take it offline.)
AIDEA CEO and Executive Director Tom Boutin said last week that Dunleavy didn’t have anything to do with it, but if you go back to the tape it’s clear that he’s only answering the question strictly in terms of whether or not the Tall One was personally involved.
The whole thing stinks, especially when we’ve already seen the lengths the administration has taken to skirt the state’s public procurement rules in the utter fiasco that was last year’s attempt to steer the Alaska Psychiatric Institute into private hands. One politico pointed out to us that the likely reason AIDEA was involved at all is that departments can only award contracts up to $50,000 without following the bid process.
Though, as we’ve seen already, the Legislature is limited in its ability to really go after the administration. It doesn’t have the same subpoena powers as Congress and lying doesn’t land you with criminal charges.
Law-knowing @Alaska_Cases_Bot (who’s definitely not a bot, this is a bot, but that’s beside the point) pointed out that oversight should be the job of Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, who has the power to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the issue.
No. @AGKevinClarkson needs to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate. Alaska law gives the AG authority under AS 44.23.020(b)(7) to appoint a special prosecutor if justice requires. The Penney contract raises serious questions about criminal violations at the highest levels. https://t.co/kaUOxZQ6tF
— Alaska Cases (@AK_cases_bot) February 14, 2020
But seeing as how Clarkson is facing legislative heat for his decision to award a $600,000 lawsuit to the Trump-affiliated law firm to take an anti-union case to the U.S. Supreme Court, we won’t be holding our breaths on this one. At least Clarkson did go through the public procurement process after he ran up against the $50,000 limit on his pet project (though, as most would point out, these bid requests can be written pretty creatively).
$50,000 well spent
Remember state economist Ed King? Whatever happened to that $50,000 no-bid contract he got from the Department of Revenue right after he left the administration?
KTUU’s Sean Maguire got to the bottom of it in a report published today: State of Alaska shelves $50K oil tax report, saying it needs ‘substantial additional work’ (I won’t even quote the juicy bits because the entire thing is juicy. Go read it.)
All of #akleg Twitter is probably smarmily reposting the story with some variation of “I could’ve told you that.”
Then again, if you want to put on the tinfoil hat of Twitter perhaps it was such a ringing endorsement of oil taxes that they buried it. But then again, that didn’t stop the administration’s eventual release of the Alaska Marine Highway System study. Maybe the administration just takes the time to read things through before publishing them (something I, your ever-so-humble “editor,” do not have any experience with).
That’s how many words, according to Microsoft Word, I’ve put down at this point so this is probably as good of a place to wrap up the column. I feel like there’s a dozen other things that are going around that would be great entertainment to write about, but I’m currently writing this from somewhere over the San Juan Islands on my way down to Portland this weekend for a family barbecue, a very special person’s birthday and some good ol’ professional wrestling.
Have the most excellent of weekends, y’all.
Don’t go signing any $50,000 contracts that you’ll regret on Monday.
(And sorry for all the typos! Hopefully the need for additional work and review won’t be “substantial.”)