Friday in the Sun (May 8): The Better Way edition

Friday in the Sun is here

Welcome to another edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column cobbling together gossip, rumor and good ol’ educated guesses in an attempt to make some sense—and some fun—of this week in Alaska politics.

As always, political rumor is best treated as a recreational sport. Take everything with a grain of salt, trust the guidance of your medical professional (unless, perhaps, they’re a member of the Alaska Dental Society) and be kind, especially to yourself.

Your humble, existentially exhausted editor at [email protected] with tips, corrections, grammatical advice and whatever else you see fit.

Have a nice weekend and be safe.

RPL: The three most destructive letters in Legislative Entertainment

We’ve said it before, we’ve said it againand again and again and again. The Legislature’s RPL process (which, please, don’t ask us to explain again) is not a legal vehicle to distribute more than $1 billion in federal CARES Act money to communities, small businesses and fisheries.

Then again, it’s also the only thing that has even a semblance of momentum as the need for that money to arrive in the hands of stricken businesses and local governments is becoming increasingly dire.

After getting several of his requests sidelined because of legal issues, Dunleavy brought them back with only minor revisions for a Legislative Budget and Audit Committee meeting that was scheduled on Wednesday. That meeting was canceled in the morning as political and logistical questions.

Committee Chair Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, has been trying to make the case to legislators that they need to A) Protect the Legislature’s constitutional authority over spending B) Make sure the money is spent wisely and C) Pass several much-need provisions giving the state the flexibility to shift around funds, recover funds where needed and resolve the potentially costly issues around liability on how the funds are spent.

It’s a generally reasonable-sounding position that is likely lost on most due to the utterly complicated nature of the RPL process—I’m getting sleepy just writing those letters—and the whole “These unprecedented times require an unprecedented response” thing.

Though Tuck’s call to return to session to do things the legal way has the backing of some, the proposal critically lacks the support of Senate President Cathy Giessel who’s in the “These unprecedented times require an unprecedented response” camp.

So, is Dunleavy’s proposal to use the RPL process to distribute more than a billion dollars legal? No.

Is there an alterative that has the backing of at least a majority of both chambers? No.

It seems like things are inextricably wrapped around the axle, but a wise politico reminded us of just how sensitive legislators are when it comes to how they look in the media. So far, it’s been relatively muted because, well, everything else.

It’s been slow, but Dunleavy and his cohort—who are typically very “WE MUST FOLLOW THE LAWS (THAT WE AGREE WITH (WHICH IS REALLY JUST THE PFD))”—have got into political gear and are starting to point fingers where they can. Still, it seems more like a perfunctory finger wag than anything to really get the base excited (Also, it’s important to keep in mind that a lot of the pro-PFD crowd would really like to see Dunleavy turn the CARES Act funding into a PFD).

Ultimately the chatter seems to be that with some revisions, the Legislature would more likely than not be willing to look the other way on the legal issues with the RPL process and approve them on Monday or soon thereafter.

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz summed it up best during today’s news conference: “In my experience in Juneau is that when people start squawking the loudest, it’s usually a sign they’re getting pretty close to a deal.”

After all, courts don’t automatically strike down illegal actions on their own. It takes someone to file a lawsuit.

It, then, makes a case for a more direct conversation between the governor, the Legislature and affected parties—looking at you, Fairbanks—to reach agreement on something that can at least get everyone to look the other way.

The governor’s unequal distribution of funds, which seems to highly favor communities with sales taxes while leaving Anchorage and Fairbanks—which have actually been more affected by the COVID-19 pandemic—behind others in a per-capita comparison, seems particularly in need of revision. At the very least it needs some transparency and honesty in the process.

Dunleavy and his administration haven’t done a heckuva lot in his first year to earn any kind of confidence in the way he’s handling money.

The fact that they’re using the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority as the vehicle for the small business money—which is shaping up to be an incredibly vague bank-driven loan program—is particularly questionable given the agency’s questionable use of an emergency meeting to advance the controversial Ambler Road and the fact that the agency just had its director resign/fired.

A better way

Speaking about small business relief money, there’s a growing push for this money to go out as grants instead of loans, which might not be forgivable.

Sarah Leonard, the president and CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, made the case succinctly during today’s House Labor and Commerce Committee hearing. She said especially for the tourism industry, loans create an unacceptable level of risk when businesses are unsure when and how revenue might return.

“Collateral requirements and personal guarantees only add to a business owner’s financial burden in a time when any incoming revenue is uncertain,” she said. “The CARES Act loans, even at low interest, must be repaid and for businesses already in debt, this will only add to the slow recovery of the business and the Alaska tourism economy. Changing loans to grants to support tourism businesses now may help them stabilize and be ready to recover when it’s safe to travel again.”

The Legislature has already given the governor the tools to be able to distribute this money through local economic development programs, putting the decisions in local hands. Instead, he’s largely gone the AIDEA route.

Hey, it’s almost like there is a need for the Legislature to meet and have some say in how this money gets spent.

Just keep swimmin’

The governor announced on Wednesday that the next stage of reopening can get underway as of 8 a.m. this morning, allowing bars, swimming pools and gyms to reopen at limited capacity while the restaurants that have reopened dine-in services can increase their capacity from 25% to 50%.

None of this feels great even given Alaska’s low number of cases, but what’s particularly baffling about the timing of all of this is that the guidelines for reopening weren’t released until late Thursday night. It’s this by-the-seat-of-our-pants public health policy that doesn’t instill a whole lot of confidence as they hope to get people back to working and spending.

Anyways, Anchorage will be following suit with the next phase of reopening on Monday. At least folks’ll have the weekend to look in vain for some hand sanitizer.

Complicated

There’s a more items I set out to write about when I began writing this column before my phone started buzzing this morning with word that former Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott had died. What I had hoped would be rumor was unfortunately confirmed within the hour. I’m still not entirely sure what to say about any of it, so I’ll leave you with this from journalist Rhonda McBride:

“A great Alaska Native leader, yet complicated,” she wrote on Twitter. “Someday, I had hoped he would talk with me about his shocking departure from his job as Lt. Gov. But here’s a part of his story worth knowing.”

Take care, everyone.

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