Welcome to Friday in the Sun, our weekly column attempting to break down, catch up and goof on the political news of the week. As always, it’s best to treat political rumor and gossip as a recreational activity where the rules are made up and the points don’t matter.
The Legislature is off to, well, about the start we would have expected with the 20-20 split in the House and a fractured Senate. While the House is still unorganized with no sign of changing anytime soon, the Senate hit day one with a Republican majority helmed by Soldotna Sen. Peter Micciche as their choice for Senate President.
Micciche and the majority have talked a big talk about bringing together conservatives of all different types in the name of being conservative to do conservative things… like… um… spending out a big dividend to Alaskans… maybe. At a news conference this week, they couldn’t really tell us generally they planned to do with their majority, but Majority Whip Sen. Mia Costello was sure to tell us that it’ll be conservative.
“I’m really proud that the conservatives who were elected to the Senate have come together as a team of conservatives to work on our agenda,” she said, “and we have organized this session without a binding caucus.”
Oh right, they’re going into this without a binding caucus, meaning that there’s really no plan on how they’ll bring together the warring GOP factions—the far-right, the moderates and party-liners—other than “We’ll figure it out eventually.” The bigger split, as we see it, is between those who understand the reality of the state’s financial situation and those who continue to get their budget information from the Facebook comments section.
A far more telling quote from the GOP news conference came from Finance co-chair Sen. Bert Stedman, who said he’ll be hitting the ground running with a no-nonsense look at the budget and the problem facing the state.
“We’re all entitled to our own political philosophies, but we’re not entitled to our own numerics,” he said.
At the very least, it’s an acknowledgement that you can’t only cut your way out of the structural deficit while delivering on the promise of mega PFDs made on the campaign trail. There was glancing talk about new revenue, but we won’t be putting too much stock into those talks until we see legislation come forward.
Right now, the Senate Majority is working overtime to project unity and strength when in reality this could all come crashing down or they could limp along long enough to kick the can another year with another big hit to the state’s dwindling savings.
The backdrop of all of this is that the Senate was, as we’ve heard, was actually very close to organizing as a bipartisan coalition with talks continuing pretty much right up to the time they gaveled in on Tuesday.
The going rumor is that a certain non-Anchorage, non-Juneau, non-Golovin Democrat (Sen. Scott Kawasaki for those who need it spelled out for them) had his heart set on the chair of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee but that was too big of an ask.
While we can take some comfort in moderates holding control over the most critical gate-keeping committees in Senate Finance and Senate Rules, we also now have committees in the hands of folks like Sen. Lora Reinbold, who personally signed onto a legal brief supporting Texas’ lawsuit to overturn the presidential election and is now running the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In addition to the usual early-session budget overviews in Finance and production updates in Resources, the Senate Judiciary Committee will be treating us to a hearing on “COVID health orders & impact on Alaskans by Department of Law & Department of Health and Social Services.”
And then there’s State Affairs Committee chair Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, and his Senate Bill 39, which is already scheduled for two hearings next week.
Let’s call it what it is: Voter suppression
Apparently, part of the organizational deal in the Senate is allowing Wasilla Republican Senator/ reason why the Senate nearly went bipartisan in the first place Mike Shower to get Senate Bill 39 to the floor.
The measure is huge and appears to be largely inspired by election conspiracy theories floated over the past year, creating ballot custody measures, an election fraud hotline, prohibiting people from returning other people’s ballots except for in some very limited circumstances, ending automatic voter registration with the PFD (effectively repealing the automatic registration voter initiative) and, perhaps most critically, would effectively ban municipalities from having by-mail elections.
To be clear, this is voter suppression under the guise of election security. It makes it harder for the elderly and disabled to vote, makes it harder for people to register and would interfere with local municipalities’ ability to conduct their elections as they see fit. Still, it’s not entirely surprising to see coming from a guy who’s been drumming up “evidence” of “fraud” through Facebook, but what is surprising—or perhaps not all that surprising but disheartening—is that the GOP majority has apparently guaranteed him that the bill will reach the Senate floor regardless of its merits.
To be clear, election fraud is exceedingly rare in Alaska and the state even had to admit in the run up to the 2020 elections that the witness signature requirement had never been used to catch fraud in Alaska. The courts agreed that it served no meaningful purpose except to make it harder for people to vote and struck it down for the duration of the pandemic.
It’s the only bill scheduled to be heard in the Senate next week with hearings in the State Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Shower, on Tuesday and Thursday.
“I don’t know.”
“I guess we’ll see.”
“We’re hoping it won’t be as long as last time but…”
Those are a sampling of a few of the responses I’ve received when asking folks about when—and how—the House might organize after it found itself stuck at 20-20 on the first day of session, unable to even elect a speaker pro tempore to oversee the election of a speaker.
The 20-member bipartisan coalition seems to be pretty firm given everything we’ve heard and the release of a statement on Thursday reaffirming their commitment to the Alaska Permanent Fund’s long-term health, a contrast to the largely position-less Senate Majority:
“Our coalition’s founding principle is that the Permanent Fund belongs as much to future generations as it does to Alaskans today. The only way to achieve this goal is by adhering to a fiscally conservative management approach to the use of the Fund’s earnings. This approach is critical to ensure that the Legislature does not spend beyond our means, endangering essential services and future Dividends.”
There’s been a lot of attempts to pick off coalition members by the Republicans, but it sounds like the Senate’s organization that empowered far-right conservatives isn’t helping convince anyone. A Republican-led House would open the gates for a slew of legislation like Shower’s voter suppression bill, anti-abortion measures and further attacks on rural Alaska.
Meanwhile, Republicans seem to still be floating an idea a majority that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 28 members with an even split between each side. This proposal would likely put Rep. Steve Thompson, a well-liked Fairbanks Republican, as House Speaker while sidelining the most “extreme” members of both sides. On the Republican side that would be presumably folks like the oft-racist, conspiratorial Rep. David Eastman while I’m not exactly sure who qualifies as “extreme” on the left.
While coalition members have hoped that Thompson and fellow Fairbanks Republican Rep. Bart LeBon, who were both members of the previous coalition, could be convinced to come over once again, it seems that the governor’s compact with the University of Alaska—which is a top priority of the Fairbanks delegation—that settled funding for a few years has taken a lot of heat off them.
I’m not entirely sure what will change things. Time and frustration? Another Eastman stunt?
CARES Act Audit, updated
As one of the final actions of the 31st Legislature, the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee approved an audit of the state’s bungled business relief program that we reported on here. As is the case with these sort of things, the language that was online isn’t what was ultimately approved. Here’s what the state auditor will be looking at with those funds:
- Obtain, as quickly as possible, information regarding the grantee names, locations, and specific amounts associated with each AK CARES grant award. This information should be made available to the committee as soon as practicable, prior to the completion of the other audit items;
- Review the process used to procure contractors to help administer the program;
- Analyze the prioritization and review process, in order to ensure that all eligible businesses were fairly and equitably treated. This review should include, but not be limited to:
- Consideration of how then-existing applicant lists were impacted after the application criteria were broadened at the LB&A meeting of August 27, 2020;
- Specific attention should be paid to the consideration and review of grants that may have been awarded to members of state boards and commissions and other individuals who may have a conflict of interest;
- Address other issues of concern identified by the Legislative Auditor during the audit.
There was some consternation raised at the meeting by Sen. Natasha von Imhof about naming the recipients, which is particularly interesting given that von Imhof is new chair of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee. That might not make that big of a difference, though, as we’ve been hearing rumblings that the state might independently release that information anyways.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s communications team has some weird ideas, including this tweet of the governor working on the first day of session that included this photo. First, is that really his work desk? Guy’s 6’7” and that is not what the desk of anyone should look like. Get him an elevated monitor at the very least!
But another eagle-eyed reader informed us of the press team’s… sparing use of the blur function.
ZOOM AND FLIP
Alaska Public Offices Commission v. Donna Patrick, James K. Barnett, et al.,
Does the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United invalidate Alaska’s law setting a campaign contribution limits on independent expenditure groups? The state says so even though a court has never actually said so. The Alaska Supreme Court this week heard oral arguments on such a case with the side arguing that the limits should still apply being argued by Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig.
In a week with a lot of other news, this one got overlooked by pretty much everyone even though it has a good chance of going to the U.S. Supreme Court. Twitter’s anonymous Alaska Cases has a pretty good thread on it here.
‘Who’s gonna run for governor?’
Is a thing that I heard this week, which is all I want to say/think about that for the time being.
That’s how much Rep. Liz Snyder announced she raised for her legal defense fund against what her attorney called now-former Rep. Lance Pruitt’s “vexatious and unreasonable allegations” in his effort to overturn her 11-vote victory. While the whole thing eventually boiled down to the Division of Election’s failure to follow the letter of the law on changing polling places—by having failed to notify the Anchorage Municipal Clerk—it initially named and accused several voters and members of Snyder’s campaign team of voter fraud.
Because of those “vexatious and unreasonable allegations,” Pruitt could eventually find himself contributing to Snyder’s legal defense fund once Snyder’s motion for attorney’s fees (the source of that description) works its way through the system.
That’s how many thank yous I have for everyone who’s signed up for The Midnight Sun Memo in its first week. It’s going to take a bit of getting used to for my work flow, but it’s been a really exciting change of pace for me to work with a new set of constraints and also freedoms.
If you haven’t signed up, now’s the time!