Welcome to the latest edition of Friday in the Sun, the weekly column where we try to make sense of the week and get caught up on all the odds, ends, rumors and innuendo from the week that was in Alaska politics.
As always, rumor should be treated as a recreational activity that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. As always, love with your heart, use your head for everything else.
It finally happened.
House Minority Republicans’ patience with Rep. David Eastman has finally run out.
On Thursday morning, Eastman cast his most symbolic NEASTMAN vote as the lone member of the House to oppose his removal from all committees. While fights over the PFD and the budget still loom, the 32 present members could agree Eastman should be removed from his spots on the Rules and Judiciary committees.
The removals follow his removal from the House Minority caucus on a probationary one-month time out. House Minority Leader Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, spoke about it in a floor speech during the debate on the accepting the changes, adding that there “will be an opportunity for restoration.”
“I will take ownership of this decision, I did it in consulting with my caucus. If anyone has any issues with this decision, though, send all your arrows to me. The burden of leadership means that you take, sometimes, difficult steps and in this case our caucus felt, I believe, that we needed to take a pause,” Pruitt said.
Once tolerated by Republicans, Eastman has increasingly been at odds with the Minority this year as his extracurricular activities have put his now-former caucus members on the receiving end of far-right groups and individuals whipped up on everything from the Elizabeth Peratrovich coins to abortion. Well, it’s mostly been about abortion.
Things looked to be at their breaking point last week with the passage of the supplemental budget bill when Eastman ran several anti-abortion amendments and then refused to sit down when ruled out of order by House Speaker Bryce Edgmon. We have a full rundown of that in last week’s column: Saturday in the Sun (Feb. 29): The ‘David, get out of here!’ edition.
Pruitt, who also noted that Speaker Edgmon had previously sought to remove Eastman from committees, said in his comments that the floor session wasn’t the driver.
“This is not about what happened on the floor. For those that may be watching, there are things that have happened that you may have never seen that has gotten to the point where we believe that we need to place this pause, we need to say let’s take some time and let’s revisit this at another point in time,” he said.
We’d hazard a guess that it’s those attacks on fellow Republicans that they could no longer stand but then again, seeing as how it’s Eastman, there could be a whole bunch of other things going on.
Perhaps he’s refusing to let them in on his coronavirus supplies.
For his part, Eastman has been relatively muted since last week’s dustup. Though operating budget day was spent almost entirely dealing with his amendments, it was largely void of the typical obstinacy and procedural battles, and with little drama elsewhere everything was done inside regular business hours.
His Thursday morning speech opposing this removal from the committee was very nearly dignified—at least in a complete vacuum where we ignore all the crummy and frequently racist stuff he’s said and done over his time in office.
At the end of the day, it was something to watch a man trying to save face in a room of people who are united in thinking he’s been a royal pain in the ass.
That’s the proposed split between dividends and government services contained in House Bill 306, the House Majority’s proposal for doing something to try to settle the dividend fight this year. It sends 80 percent of the spending limit set on the permanent fund’s earnings to government and 20 percent to dividends.
It’ll be a hard sell, but it should be considered the opening offer in what’s expected to be further negotiations in the Legislature and with Dunleavy. Keep in mind that many of the pro-PFDers have suggested a compromise could be found with a 50-50 split.
Brad “PFD cuts have the ‘largest adverse impact’” Keithley has suggested a 50-50 compromise with a 4 percent flat income tax that he suggests will more fairly spread out the burden between the rich and the poor.
The legislation is scheduled for a flurry of hearings next week, so stay tuned.
APFC weighs in
In an unusual move, the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation is calling on the Legislature to overhaul how the fund is managed in order to gird against potentially draining the earnings reserve account. The managers warn there’s a 50 percent chance of “catastrophic fiscal failure” within the next 20 years.
The proposals call for either merging the earnings reserve account with the constitutionally protected corpus or keeping the earnings reserve account large enough to absorb market freefalls.
The Legislature doesn’t seem to be particularly worried about 20-year outlooks, though, as the near-term fiscal issues are keeping folks up at night
“Spending a lot of time with probability analysis on a 20-year risk exposure is a good exercise,” said Senate Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Bert Stedman after a hearing last week. “Politically, it’s foolish. We need to deal with the next two to three years and fix our fiscal position.”
Then again, the APFC and its investors seem to know a thing or two. Though the Alaska Permanent Fund saw nearly $3 billion erased last week in coronavirus-induced market panic, it noted that it had recently taken steps to invest in the biomedical field.
One of those companies it invested in is Vir Biotechnology, which just so happens to be one of the companies working on a COVID-19 vaccine. And it also just so happens that Congress set aside $3 billion for COVID-19 vaccine research in its emergency funding bill.
So silver linings, I guess?
Speaking about the rich and the poor, the Legislature has been holding several hearings on the oil tax initiative that seem to have the takeaway message that the two-page initiative is so incredibly complex, incredibly vague and incredibly flawed that it would just decimate the industry. Is that totally true? With all things in the oil industry, it depends on who you ask.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat who supports the initiative, made it clear that he didn’t think particularly highly of the Legislature’s hired consultants at a hearing on Monday. The consultants said left and right that things were confusing, just as the Legislature’s attorneys said last week (where they also conceded that the initiative sponsors’ reading of the law would be the most likely one).
“I guess the point that I would make is that I have a 53-page document in front of me outlining all the potential ambiguities. The Supreme Court has said the that thing you look at with ballot initiatives are the published arguments and the intent of the sponsor. This was not done,” he said. “So we’re going to go through and spend 53 pages and the next two, maybe four, hours of the day picking through what the potential ambiguities are when if the witness had simply spoken to the bill sponsor or looked at the published arguments, they would have very clearly figured out that there are really no ambiguities or they could have ascertained what the intent was of the bill sponsor.
“That’s what the Supreme Court says to look at so you basically have a witness up here who’s hands are tied behind his back. He hasn’t looked at any of the documents. He hasn’t looked at any of the arguments. He hasn’t spoken with the bill sponsor. Hasn’t looked at a bill which was filed, Senate Bill 29, which is substantially similar to this bill and fleshes out all of these issues,” he said. “If this were a court, this witness would not be considered an expert witness. This document would be thrown out and we wouldn’t even be spending the next four hours listening to this. This is basically a meaningless exercise that will do nothing but confuse the people of the state of Alaska and create confusion and sow seeds of doubt and ambiguity when there really is not, or it could have been easily solved.”
His comments also come at a time when the Legislature is renewing long-standing divisions on oil taxes. Last week, Sen. Natasha von Imhof seemed personally offended by pieces of the initiative, particularly the disclosure element that she called “despicable.”
The oil industry also made an odd appearance during the House debate on the operating budget amendments this week. While Rep. Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage, was pillorying Eastman for his intent language-heavy “talking point amendments,” she warned against extra spending.
“The spending increases are things we cannot afford,” she said. “I cautioned this yesterday (with the passage of House Concurrent Resolution 13) and it’s even more appropriate today: Increased spending, no matter how good, places a larger target on the resource industry that we rely on for much of our spending.”
The New Yorker
Speaking about the truth depending on who you ask, things related to Sen. Bill Wielechwoski and oil companies, The New Yorker has a deeply detailed story of how Alaska reached the point where the governor is facing down a recall effort. The story has been met with dismissal by some, grousing over what they see are inaccuracies in the story, but maybe it’s lines like this that are particularly objectionable?
For Wielechowski, the recall, which he supports, is complicated because he also believes that the bipartisan effort to reduce the dividend is orchestrated by the oil companies. “Reducing the dividend is all about getting rid of the Permanent Fund so that the oil companies don’t have to pay more taxes,” Wielechowski said. “It’s all about oil.” Wielechowski believed that Palin, by raising oil taxes, had made a truly populist move, and he noted that her approval rating rose to ninety per cent, the highest of any Alaska governor. But he sees Dunleavy, who voted to repeal the oil-company taxes as a state senator and now refuses to consider any tax increases on the oil companies, in a different light. “His populism is a total façade,” Wielechowski said. “When push comes to shove, his populism takes a back seat to corporatism.”
For the record, what’s latency?
The House State Affairs Committee held its hearing on the state’s efforts to move Alaska’s data into The Cloud during Thursday. The contract, like all contracts in the Dunleavy administration, has come under scrutiny and was flagged by the state employees’ union last week.
ASEA/AFSCME Local 52 released a statement last week, criticizing the state for inking the contract without first conducting the necessary feasibility studies.
But if there’s a smoking gun here, it wasn’t uncovered at Thursday’s hearing that ended up being more of an endeavor in legislators trying to wrap their heads around what precisely The Cloud is and what it isn’t. Though the committee has to be one of the youngest in the Legislature, the whole hearing had the feel of that 2015 marijuana show-and-tell hearing held by the House Judiciary Committee.
Not ever oversight hearing in the Legislature can be a smash hit, but they did score a victory this week when we saw the abrupt end of the controversial no-bid contract handed to Clark Penney, the grandson of a key donor to Dunleavy’s election effort. (Though we’re still waiting to see if anything came from the governor’s promise to get to the bottom of how it was awarded.)
If they’re looking for anything else to bring up, I’d suggest giving a careful look at the Anchorage Daily News’ latest report on the departure of Spring Creek Correctional Center’s former superintendent Bill Lapinskas. It tells a story of how Lapinskas’ efforts to improve the prisoners’ chances at a successful reentry ran afoul of the Dunleavy administration and corrections Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom, who favor a “hats, bats and BDUs” approach to corrections (BDU as in battle dress uniforms).
“Doing reform, we’re recognizing the fact that prisons aren’t working. If we’re not talking about prisons not working, we’re morons,” he said.
Still on the job
We heard a rumor this week that former Rep. Tammie Wilson had up and quit her new job with the Department of Health and Social Services of pestering reforming the Office of Children’s Services. Turns out it’s not true and Wilson reports that she’s still plugging away with her effort and expects that it’ll ultimately take time and potentially new legislation to make some big changes.
As for how the rumor got started, Wilson said she had no idea but there are a lot of rumors floating around. Sadly, though, she did not fill us in on any.
And with that lack of additional content, my pop’s due in on a flight to check out the Iditarod in a few minutes so I gotta get this wrapped up! Have a nice weekend y’all and cheer on those pups!