Friday in the Sun (Jan. 29): The Last Park Ranger edition

Welcome to the latest edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column attempting to break down, catch up and goof on the political news of the week. As always, commenting on and prognosticating about Alaska politics is best treated as a recreational activity.

And, again, thank you to everyone who has taken the time to subscribe to The Midnight Sun Memo. The support has frankly been amazing and I’m excited to embark on this journey with you guys. If you have comments, suggestions, tips and/or tricks, you can get ahold of me at [email protected]

Let’s get to it. 

The State of the State

Gov. Mike Dunleavy gave another generally awkward, light-on-details, heavy-on-weird-lines address to the state on Thursday night. He renewed his push for the state-sanctioned gambling and a slate of feel-good constitutional amendments that would cripple the state for generations while skirting the details of the state’s incredibly precarious financial situation. 

It wasn’t until this morning, while the Senate Finance Committee was going over the governor’s proposed budget with OMB Director Neil Steininger, that it struck me just how little the governor actually talked about the budget during his presentation. We got just three uses of the word “budget” in service of promoting his proposed $5,000 PFD, his severe constitutional spending cap proposal and a $7 million budget request for “ramping up the prosecution of those who commit crimes of sexual assault and domestic violence.” No mention of the $2 billion deficit, no mention of budget cuts, no mention of overdrawing the Alaska Permanent Fund to pay for dividends and no mention of taxes other than to promote his other constitutional amendment that would effectively make it impossible for the Legislature or voters via initiative to implement any new taxes. 

According to Dunleavy, the budget is hardly a concern—especially when compared to the amount of time he gave to environmentalists and cancel culture—so insignificant that all our woes can be fixed by his sole proposal for new revenue: Legalized gambling. 

“We must also look for creative ways to augment our revenue. … Alaska can no longer afford to deny itself a revenue stream available to nearly every other state in the nation,” he said, in a section that accounted for three of his four references to revenue in the speech (the other being about resource production). “Along with enhancing revenue, gaming could create hundreds of high-paying jobs in some of our communities, and we would join a long list of states that have embraced gaming for some time.” 

No wonder why many of his followers continue to push for a massive PFD with only cuts to government as the solution. Look, Alaska is in a tough spot when it comes to its finances, it has burned through its savings over the last decade, its traditional revenue source of oil has dwindled, and it has already gone through many years of deep, existentially threatening cuts. 

The solution is going to be a little bit of everything: Cuts, a reduced dividend and new revenues. It would have been helpful for the legislators trying to navigate these decisions if Dunleavy, at the very least, acknowledged they existed. 

A clear-eyed look at the budget

Alaskans would be better off watching the Senate Finance Committee overview from earlier today. There, senators met the issues with much more candor than the governor could muster. Here’s a rundown: 

  • The state has burned through its savings, effectively allowing everyone to “put off the more difficult decisions,” Steininger explained, “until now.” It didn’t go without comment that without a dividend of any kind, the state’s budget would be nearly balanced (the difference between the red and the dotted yellow line in the chart above). Instead, the proposal to pay a $5,000 dividend creates a roughly $2 billion deficit (the dotted red line) that would be paid for exclusively from the Alaska Permanent Fund, which would reduce returns in future years. “We don’t necessarily have a fiscal crisis,” said Sen. Natasha von Imhof, “we have a priority crisis.”
  • The governor’s proposing a big general obligation bond package that would be put to the voters. Exactly what’s in it is unclear but senators aren’t particularly convinced that the financial markets will look at debt on top of a structural deficit is a sound investment. They worry that the rates won’t be friendly and the plan won’t work. 
  • Senate Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Bert Stedman was particularly harsh about what he felt were several oversights in the state’s presentation—separating out the dividend, using loads of one-time funding for recurring costs and other measures—and notes that he believes the state’s deficit is “a little deeper than what’s presented today.”
  • The state’s Constitutional Budget Reserve, once valued around $13 billion, is now down to about $930 million. That means Alaska’s getting to the point where it could be having cash flow problems that affect day-to-day operations. That really starts to happen around $500 million, but the governor plans on drawing about $39.6 million from the account this year. Sen. Lyman Hoffman warned that given the three-quarter vote requirement to make a withdrawal from that account, it’s probably not worth even trying for this year. 
  • So just what does the governor think they should do when it comes to revenue? “We’re open to discussions,” Steininger said, claiming that resolving the dividend is enough of a direction for this year. 
  • Hoffman didn’t appreciate the dodging and said “It seems as both of those issues are paramount to the state: resolving the dividend and looking at additional revenue sources. I don’t believe that we need to look at just one of those issues. We need to look at both of them this year. We should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “That doesn’t seem like a big ask.” He also made a good point that legislators are going to be particularly wary about inflating the deficit over dividends without a plan to address it. It should all be part of the same picture, he said. 
  • von Imhof was particularly harsh about the state’s separation of the dividend from the overall budget picture, arguing “If your administration is going to propose a full dividend and the corresponding deficits that go with it, own it. Put it in all your slides, defend it. Talk about it. Don’t hide behind the fact that we’re just going to pretend that it doesn’t exist because it’s just this very large bar compared to everything else. OWN IT.”
  • Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, chimed in though that he’s frustrated with the framing of the state’s financial picture as a binary choice between dividends and state services. “Every dollar that we don’t get from the oil industry … means that money is coming out of people’s dividends. … We’re standing on the barerl of no dividends going out in the future because we’re afraid to get the fair share of our resource on the North Slope.”

The Last Park Ranger

Dunleavy closed his speech with predictably right-wing talking points about unity and how it’s really the liberals—not the folks who’ve been denying the results of a free and fair election—that are at fault. 

“When our history is written, will it be that we forced our children to look beyond Alaska’s shores for the American Dream?” he said, in a line that I bet lands very differently for everyone who’s known someone who’s moved Outside as he’s throttled the University of Alaska. “That we stood by until Alaska was nothing more than a handful of holdouts fighting to be the last park ranger.” 

But also that park ranger line: 

The House unorganized

The House is still not organized. There was a flicker of interest, though, on Wednesday when Rep. Josiah Aullaqsruaq Patkotak, I-Utqiagvik, appeared in a House Republican news release about the feds revoking land allotments. It’s the sort of thing that could be taken as a weakness in the otherwise-seemingly solid 20-member House coalition. 

But that hope was probably put to rest the following day with a news release from the Bipartisan Coalition, affirming that the Bush Caucus—with whom Patkotak has pledged to caucus with—opposes “Outside restrictions on responsible development.”

More interesting, in my opinion, is the House Republicans’ post-State of the State news conference last night where, by our count, just 14 of the 20 showed up. Notably missing were the folks considered to be the more extreme members of the group: Reps. David Eastman, Ben Carpenter, Sarah Vance, Christopher Kurka and Ron Gillham.

These are apparently the folks that the core Republicans are more than happy to jettison in their push for an evenly split bipartisan coalition, a plan that we described last week. I wonder how thrilled they are to be pushed out in the cold by their fellow Republicans? 

Apparently in return the core group of Republicans want the Democrats to give the boot to their “extreme” members, but the list that’s floating around—pretty much anyone who’s looked sideways at Dunleavy over the last year—just kinda isn’t a fair trade and seems somewhat along the lines of trying strike a wedge into organizational talks. I don’t think that two years of tough oversight on Dunleavy is quite the same as the bullshit—questioning the election, comparing covid health measures to the Holocaust and trashing students on an official Facebook account—that Eastman, Carpenter and Vance have been pushing for the last few years. 

Don’t expect much movement anytime soon, but the fact that House Republicans have so clearly put out their internal division for all to see is not the best of negotiating positions. 

On organization

There’s been much talk about what went in the Senate that dashed the chance of a bipartisan organization, leading to a Republican-led Senate Majority that put nutty Sens. Lora Reinbold and Mike Shower at the head of committees. Much of the blame has rested on Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, who by last week’s reports wouldn’t give up his ask for the chair of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee. Folks are livid with him for what feels like he’s putting Republicans, and therefore very conservative Republicans, in power, but several people have said it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Well, it sounds like it’s more complicated than that (not to totally excuse Kawasaki, as it sounds like something about committees definitely was part of it). Namely, and it sounds like Sens. Natasha von Imhof and Josh Revak—Anchorage Republicans who’re the closest we can consider to middle-of-the-road Republicans in today’s party—weren’t quite as solidly on board with a bipartisan coalition and may have been going back and forth a bit. Without them, the coalition would’ve been left at 10 with seven Democrats and the three moderate Republican Sens. Stedman, Stevens and Bishop. Just why that happened isn’t entirely clear but given that von Imhof was nearly defeated in the primary by a racist conspiracy theorist can’t be totally forgotten. While the changes ushered in by Ballot Measure 2 may be promising for folks like U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, it’s still all untested and I wouldn’t blame legislators for banking on it quite yet. 

In turn, Stedman, Stevens and Bishop were able to parlay their work into choice positions in the Senate and Senate President Peter Micciche was left with what everyone knows is a weak majority without enough votes in any one faction to get business done. 

That the Democrats end up relegated to a minority may not be the worst thing in the world for them. Reinbold and Shower will be headaches for the majority, already painting the group as a conspiratorial and anti-science bunch over the course of just two hearings this week. And that’s before we get to any of the big, tough votes like the budget, the dividend or anything else. Democrats are led by Minority Leader Sen. Tom Begich, hot off a surprisingly workable relationship with now-former Senate President Cathy Giessel. It’s likely that the Democrats will be needed to drag the Senate across the finish line. That’s maybe not power but it’s something.

It’s not voter suppression because we say so

We already went into depth about Sen. Reinbold’s Judiciary Committee meeting on Wednesday where she hoped to drive a spear into the tyrannical heart of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s toothless public health orders. It was filled with aggrieved riffing as Reinbold effectively filibustered her own meeting with diatribes about the Bill of Rights, guidance on church parking and aspersions on vaccine safety. Unfortunately, its follow-up meeting today was canceled, which Reinbold warned was a possibility if the state didn’t make Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink or Attorney General-designee Ed Sniffen available for berating.

Still in the same vein was Thursday’s hearing of the Senate State Affairs Committee hearing on Chair Sen. Mike Shower’s Senate Bill 39 that is definitely not voter suppression (it repeals automatic voter suppression registration with the PFD, makes it harder for the elderly to vote and would interfere with the ability of municipalities to run by-mail elections), his two staffers repeated throughout the hearing. While Reinbold ran the show on Wednesday, Shower seemed to hand over the meeting to his aides Scott Ogan and Terrence Shanigan and allowed them to interrupt other senators throughout the meeting. It was a mess and here’s the highlights:

  • A comparison between ballot chain of custody to the O.J. Simpson case.
  • Shanigan’s repeated assertions that “All ballots they are colorblind, they don’t see color and are the great equalizer in a free society” as well as the claim that administrations “can decide which votes count.”
  • “It is not a race issue, ballots don’t see color.”
  • Does this suppress votes? “No,” Shanigan claimed. “I don’t see how this suppresses a vote. We voted in-person for 247 years.”
  • Several claims that Shower and company had loads of evidence of voter fraud and errors that they got sourced from Facebook. At the request of Sen. Scott Kawasaki and even some Republicans on the committee, Shower said they’ll plan on bringing them forward with signed affidavits but said they no longer have photographic evidence of the claims that they received several ballots.
  • Ogan, who was nearly recalled as a state senator over appearances of corruption, gave several ethics lessons to the committee and interrupted at one point to drop this bomb: “A fraudulent voter or mistake suppresses a valid voter.”
  • Shower says his bill isn’t partisan because one side of the aisle had problems with the 2016 election and the other side had problems with the 2020 election.
  • In a line that I thought was remarkable at the time but turns out to be relatively common practice in campaigns, Ogan said, “I don’t know about the rest of you political junkies. Sometimes I go through the garbage can at the post office during election season just see what folks are mailing out, right?”

Former AG Ed Sniffen

Welp. Attorney General-designee Ed Sniffen lasted 11 days on the job. The governor’s office announced today that Sniffen “has removed himself for consideration as Attorney General and will be leaving state service.” As acting AG, Sniffen’s most notable accomplishment was flubbing the state’s entry to support the seditious Texas lawsuit to invalidate the 2020 election.

In his place, Dunleavy has named Treg Taylor, who’s been with the Department of Law since 2018, as his designee for Attorney General.

Anchorage elections

The filing deadline for the Anchorage elections closes this afternoon following a week where the ugliness of the far-right Save Anchorage crowd was exposed through their dismissal/defense of what are clearly pro-Nazi license plates. Assembly woman and chief provocateur Jamie Allard lost her spot on the Alaska Commission for Human Rights over her defense of the 3REICH and FUHRER as harmless foreign words that are only bad because the progressives say so. She now faces some kind of reprimand from the assembly itself.

Still, her defenders came out in droves culminating in yet another shouting match and this particularly disgusting show where they booed acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson’s condemnation of Nazism and hatred.

Of course, Allard isn’t on the ballot but Save Anchorage-endorsed far-right Dave Bronson is running for mayor and Judy Eledge is running for school board. There’s some stuff out in the ether about Bronson, who’s been holding plenty of packed mask-free fundraisers, but Elege has a litany of disgusting social media posts in her name, including plenty of anti-mask rhetoric and one blasting mixed-race relationships in media. Some of that stuff has been scrubbed, but screenshots live forever: 


That’s how many full-time equivalent positions that the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District proposes to cut as it figures out just what to do with declining enrollment amid the pandemic. A whopping 130 of those position cuts would be teachers.

“Some of those cuts will be addressed through vacancies and retirements, but others may result in layoffs,” wrote Superintendent Karen Gaborik to parents and teachers on Thursday. “In addition to reductions related to decreased enrollment, class size has been increased at many grade levels.  With 87.3% of the budget dedicated to staffing, cuts of this magnitude unfortunately result in personnel reductions. ”

It’s something that local governments and the Alaska Municipal League have been warning about throughout the pandemic, particularly in service of arguing for CARES Act dollars to go to governments to help smooth over the dramatic losses in revenue that are hitting the economy. Even though things are on the mend for the pandemic with the vaccination plan well underway, the cuts envisioned in Fairbanks are likely just the start of it. With massive gaps in every budget, expect more news of cuts to teachers and other local governments to continue.

Even if we are able to head back to restaurants for dine-in services, this scale of lost jobs are likely to make the economic impact reverberate for years to come. It’s critical that something is done now to avoid the long-term damage later.

A final note

We’ve heard a lot of grousing about public health orders this pandemic, while a lot of the actual efforts for businesses and folks to help one another through the difficulties has largely gone overlooked. Great to see this Anchorage Daily News story about the Birchwood Saloon and its furloughed bartenders putting together a makeshift call center to help folks navigate the vaccination signups.

“We’ve kind of joked that your bartenders, they’re also your marriage counselors, your real estate agents, your parts locator, your labor finder, medic — so why not be your tech support for getting your vaccines too?” Jo Rainwater, a bartender, told the paper. “Why not? Throw that feather in my hat. I don’t care, I just want to get back to work. I’ve got places to go.”

While the city has eased and continues to ease up its health protocols, the businesses has stayed closed because, as co-owner Dan Gates told the paper, “This is more than about a dollar. I don’t give a damn what other people think: We go off science and we go off what doctors are saying.”

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