Welcome to Friday in the Sun, our weekly column attempting to make sense of the news and rumors from Alaska’s political world.
But before we get started, I’m excited and nervous—mostly nervous—to announce the launch of The Midnight Sun Memo, a newfangled newsletter that I’m told is all the rage with the young people. It’s a new project where I plan to write about issues and ideas that haven’t felt like a great fit for the blog format, break down relevant news that I usually wouldn’t have the time to report out myself and talk about the nitty gritty of the Alaska Legislature (the AKLEG Recaps will be moving over here, for example, while lot of that content will live in their own regular blog posts).
For everyone who’s written asking about an email setup, here it is!
And for everyone asking about a way to support the work we’ve been doing here, here it is!
It’ll have a free Monday and Friday editions that preview the week ahead and recap the week. During the rest of the week, we’ll have posts exclusive to the paid subscribers that offer daily recaps as well as the dorky deep dives. We’ll be making all posts free for January as we get everything figured out.
Anyways! Back onto the main event:
Talking the bipartisan talk
With just days until the start of the 32nd Legislature, both the House and Senate remain unorganized with a load of different, generally unrealistic ideas for how each chamber should organize.
We heard more about the Senate Republican’s infighting this week thanks to an insider who’s spilling the specifics of intraparty fighting to the Alaska Landmine’s Jeff Landfield, whose account of last week’s meeting where Sen. Shelley Hughes inexplicably decided to unveil her ranking of every other Republicans’ conservatism we’re told is “pretty accurate.”
Perhaps the most interesting takeaway aside from “Organizing is hard, guys!” is the brilliant plan that Hughes and Sen. Mike Shower hatched to do an end run on their fellow Republicans and float a bipartisan coalition with the pro-PFD Democrats. Of course, there’s not the numbers here but it ought to paint the picture of just how at-odds the Republicans are with factions that roughly break down to the moderates, the party-line Republicans, the in-the-wilds conservatives and Sen. Lora Reinbold.
As exciting as a bipartisan coalition would be—as was suggested by Must Read Alaska–that doesn’t sound quite as close as folks were hoping with some insiders chalking up that story, which suggested Sens. Bishop, von Imhof and Stevens, were going in with the Democrats (which, if we’re keeping track still just gives them 10), as cover for the bipartisan endeavors of Shower and Hughes.
We heard the whole news of bipartisan coalition came as a surprise to at least one of the senators (and we wish we could say the same about the death threats in the comments section).
Over in the House about 30 legislators and legislators-elect reportedly attended Eagle River Republican Rep. Kelly Merrick’s “49 First” meeting on Monday, a closed-door effort to get something moving on an organization. Of course, we’ve got our own sources from the meeting and, perhaps surprisingly, people came away from it feeling like it was actually relatively kind of productive. Perhaps the most telling bit is that everyone we talked didn’t feel the need to immediately throw their colleagues under the bus.
No, no new speaker was named, and it sounds like they didn’t get to “Platform. Policies. Principles.” part of the agenda where House speaker candidates were slated to talk. It sounded largely like an icebreaker.
Also, it sounds like there was a lot of wariness about getting into any policy issues. The Legislature has effectively exempted itself from pretty much all open meetings laws, but even that was too much for the legislators to wade into, which we appreciate.
It sounds like Republicans—specifically Republicans who’ve been in Juneau before—understand the need for a bipartisan coalition to form if for no other reason than it’s currently deadlocked at 20-20. It sounds like they’re all shooting to have something around 25 or more with most suggestions putting well-liked Fairbanks Rep. Steve Thompson in the speaker’s office.
But before we all break out our guitars and sing kumbaya in the stairwells, it sounds like there’s a lot of stumbling when it comes to just what a bipartisan coalition would look like. The existing bipartisan coalition of 15 Democrats, four independents and one Republican are locked pretty firm and hoping to see a couple moderate-minded Republicans—specifically Thompson and LeBon, the two Republicans who are part of the current coalition—to come over.
However, Republicans, who had four of the six leadership positions in the current coalition, think they ought to have a greater role in whatever new coalition takes shape… it’s not the most convincing plan given Republicans were the ones that lost ground after the general election.
One idea that’s apparently being floated by Republicans is that a bipartisan coalition be formed with equal members of each party—13 party-line Republicans and 13 coalition members—and the most “extreme” members from each side be left out in the cold.
It’s not the most surprising proposal given many Anchorage Republicans’ decision to actively campaign against Rep. David Eastman this summer instead of defending their own seats against general election challengers. Instead of beating Eastman in the primary, Republicans will also get the addition of very Eastman-like legislators in Chris Kurka (one of the folks we’re hearing is already having problems figuring out how to wear a mask), Kevin McCabe and others.
Putting folks like Eastman at arm’s length, particularly at a time when they’re actively peddling election conspiracies, isn’t a bad plan.
But like Ballot Measure 2, this is a solution to a problem that really only exists to solve a problem with the Republican side of the aisle. The existing bipartisan coalition, we hear, is holding firm and their most “extreme” members are doing stuff like frowning about ANWR.
There’s definitely a feeling of “Look, we’ve got our stuff in order. Why should we bend over backwards to accommodate your inability to work together?”
That’s all to say, unless there’s some major movement in positions over the weekend don’t expect there to be some magical announcement of an organization by the time it’s time to gavel in. But given that legislators are finally filtering into Juneau, there’s hope that the masked-face-to-masked-face interactions may help shake something loose.
And that’s all setting aside the really big issues facing the Legislature this year. Not only is there the budget, the dividend and the pandemic to navigate but also a small matter of some $1.2 billion that Gov. Mike Dunleavy says needs to come online for next year’s budget.
Last week’s House Finance Committee hearing, which we recapped more thoroughly here, set a lot of the decisions in clear relief. Of course, Dunleavy hasn’t outlined any such proposals himself and the whole issue seemed to not make it into any of his budget rollout, but it’s certainly on the minds of legislators as they get to work.
Among the pre-filed bills is one by Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Adam Wool that would link the dividend to an income tax. Under the real barebones reading of the law, the bill would pay out a dividend to everyone but recoup it from the higher earners through an income tax, effectively making the dividend an income-based payout.
Will that get traction? Who knows! Will any revenue get any traction? Who knows!
A lot of those decisions will likely be decide by how each chamber organizes.
There’s been a pre-session community meetings legislators have been taking online ahead of session. It’s a nice shift to see these meetings, which have previously not had much reach beyond their walls and the odd livestream, go online and statewide.
I think, though, that this pre-session interview that Rep.-elect Josiah Aullaqsruaq Patkotak, I-Utqiagvik, is particularly interesting. After running a mostly low-profile campaign for office, the independent found himself in a key position after the general election left the GOP a vote short of a majority.
The general thinking was that he might caucus with Republicans given his support from the industry, but he ultimately announced caucus with fellow Bush legislators and defend issues important to his community.
In his interview with reporter Wesley Early, Patkotak makes it clear why he was never going to join Republicans who’ve suggested heaping cuts on rural Alaska is the optimal financial plan. At one point, he explained he sees his role in the Legislature is to educate others about “why things are the way they are” in his district. (Good, a lot of legislators could use a lesson or two.)
Also, congratulations on the baby!
With the lack of organization, the pandemic and the budget, legislators seem to generally be tempering expectations about what will get done this session but one issue that ought to get plenty of attention this session is the proposed split of the Department of Health and Social Services into two different departments, with plenty of politically appointed executive positions to go around!
The House Health and Social Services Committee held a hearing on the proposed split and, as is usual, the Dunleavy Administration refused to participate, leaving unions and tribal organizations as the main voice at the hearing to cast concern about the whole plan.
One of the biggest problems about the plan—well, other than the entire plan during the middle of a pandemic—is the proposed split of the Office of Children’s Services into two separate agencies. Specifics on the proposed split are hard to come by, but the general proposal is something that would split investigations into one agency and establishing permanent placements for children in another.
It breaks pretty much every guideline for casework—spreading out cases between two agencies is a great way to ensure children and cases slip through the cracks—while also potentially impacting federal funding as well as the current child welfare compacts with the tribes. And because of course, there’s been pretty much no outreach to stakeholders about the proposal.
While DHSS is certainly the biggest target in this whole plan, there’s some rumblings that the Dunleavy administration is eying other agencies to either be folded into departments or privatized entirely. The one we keep hearing about is the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, which was an idea he floated in his first term but never got traction.
A lot from the pandemic news this week that I just want to quickly highlight here:
- Turns out masks and the hunker down mandates worked. That’s according to a new report by the Alaska Division of Public Health this week that found “The Emergency Orders that limited and then closed public venues in late July and early August were followed by an even greater drop in transmission and the epidemic in Anchorage began to decline.” The report notes that even widespread mask usage may not be enough if enough people “are engage in high-risk behaviors such as close contact in crowded environments with persons outside of their household.” Find the full report here.
- 45% of Alaska Republicans don’t want to get vaccinated. To which we say, sure, fine.
- Covid has hit Alaska Native and other minority communities particularly hard. That’s why Dr. Anne Zink went to bat, according to a report by Alaska Public Media, to ensure that Alaska tribal health programs could get their own allotment of vaccines, which helped boost Alaska’s numbers and give opportunities for the Alaska Native community to be vaccinated at a faster pace.
A crowded field
The race for Anchorage Mayor is officially underway as today marks the first day of registrations for the Anchorage April 6 election. The mayoral race is already just as packed as we expected with Bill Evans, George Martinez, Bill Falsey, David Bronson, Mike Robbins, Dustin Darden, Forrest Dunbar and Darin Colbry already on the list. Filing closes on Jan. 29.
If no one gets 45% of the vote, the race would head to a runoff.
A final note
Have a nice pre-session weekend everyone and I’ll see you in the first edition of The Midnight Sun Memo.