Friday in the Sun (Feb. 5): The ‘Whatever we’re getting through’ edition

Friday in the Sun is here

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

As always, find me at [email protected].

‘We’ll get through whatever we’re getting through right now’

Those were the words of the newly elected House Speaker Pro Tempore Josiah Aullaqsruaq Patkotak, a freshman independent from Utqiagvik, after he took over the gavel on Thursday and sent Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer back to the third floor after serving as the chamber’s presiding officer for two and a half weeks. Perhaps it’s nearly a year of living under a pandemic, perhaps it’s watching an election season culminate with an attempted insurrection or perhaps it’s the old partisan ruts that the Legislature has already found itself mired in, but I found some inspiration in the reminder that we, not us or them, will get through whatever it is that we’re getting through. I think we could all use a little more of that type of thinking.

There’s a lot facing us. The House is still unorganized, the state faces monumental questions about the direction of state government and there’s a pandemic that’s turning the corner with the rollout of the vaccine but not without leaving several, deep economic scars. And while debate over the direction we’re pulling in is a normal part of the process, it unfortunately seems like more often than not that we’re not even in the same boat. 

This week, the Legislature’s covid skeptics—the most vocal of which are Sens. Lora Reinbold, Mia Costello and Shelley Hughes—have signaled that they plan to block the extension of the state’s covid disaster declaration for what seems to be the belief that if we stop calling it a disaster then everything can go back to normal. They tilt against things that aren’t even contained in the state’s disaster declaration—fretting about mandatory vaccines, school closures and limitations on businesses—as justification for their opposition.

State public health officials and others have sounded the alarm, warning that such a move would undermine the vaccination effort, leave many local governments unable to respond to the virus and scrap just about any other friendly regulation written in the last year. 

What’s most frustrating about the push to end the disaster declarations is that they can’t point to what, exactly, is wrong with it other than to claim, as Costello has suggested several times, that “it sends the wrong message.” (What, the message that we need to continue to be careful and look out for each other?) They propose that everything that’s important can simply be taken up and passed through a different avenue, a preposterous claim given just how many provisions are tied up in the disaster declaration and not to mention that none have come forward with their own proposal to actually do so. So far, it’s just been talk.

Their only proposed alternative it seems is to give up, relent to the political pressures that they’ve cultivated on a steady diet of disinformation and collectively accept that continued infections and deaths are just something we have to live with while the state’s vaccination program—the one thing that will truly settle things—is set back. And if they win the day, they won’t even be accomplishing what seems to be their main goal of forcing Anchorage schools back to in-person instruction and businesses to fully open up. 

Look, it feels like it bears repeating after hearing the torrent of allegations and mischaracterizations from the last two weeks, but no one likes the situation we’re living under. No one wants to see the economic damage, no one likes seeing kids set back a year, no one likes wearing a mask or forgoing family visits or seeing businesses close. I do think there’s an incredible amount of opportunity for the Legislature to play an important role in serving as a check on the governor’s powers to ensure that constitutional freedoms are protected—issues that they would find broad bipartisan support for exploring in a serious and clear-eyed fashion—but instead we’ve spent the first two weeks of session tilting at imagined enemies and childishly flouting the Legislature’s own masking rules (more on that below).

For most, the pandemic has been a practice in patience, tolerating the uncomfortable and making sacrifices so the most vulnerable among us can stay safe. For most, we’ve worked to keep up with an ever-changing set of recommendations, understanding that much about what is going on is unprecedented and that things change. Reinbold, Hughes, Costello and their supporters would suggest that it’s all been for naught. That we were wrong to weigh the safety of seniors and at-risk individuals the way we did.

When their side is so fueled by disinformation, so fueled by anger at others—giving platform to claims that schools are closed because of the teacher’s union and lazy teachers—and so lacking in real alternative policy proposals, it makes it difficult to pull together. When Costello’s chief concern seems to be with a made-up reality where vaccines are mandated by government—a policy that has never been on the table—what common ground is there to be had? 

As long as politicians see more utility in riling up their base of supporters over imaginary grievances than to offer realistic proposals about how the state’s handling of the pandemic can be improved and comport better with our Constitutional freedoms then I’m not entirely sure that we’ll get through whatever it is that we’re getting through.

I’m so tired of it.

There is no bottom

Speaking about being tired and flouting masking, here’s an excerpt from this Thursday’s edition of The Midnight Sun Memo, which went premium for the Tuesday through Thursday editions this week. Consider signing up here! 

The last line of defense. 

At a legislative hearing sometime last year, we were told a cloth mask should be considered the last line of defense against the spread of the coronavirus. The last line for when all the social distancing, bubbles, limited social gatherings, open air seating and holidays celebrated alone failed to stop the spread of aerosolized droplets of COVID-19. 

On Wednesday Feb. 3, as the Senate Judiciary Committee got underway in the Butrovich Room of the Alaska State Capitol Building, Eagle River Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold stepped over that line.

As if the culmination of what has been two weeks of covid denial and conspiracy theories, Reinbold began the meeting by taking off her plastic face shield—what was already a mockery of the rules set by the Legislature—and told her fellow committee members to wear ‘em if you want. Like-minded Sens. Mike Shower and Robert Myers readily obliged as did one of Reinbold’s staffers in the background. Ostensibly, it was so Reinbold could hear Shower present his legislation better, but it was Shower’s staffer phoning in from somewhere else who did most of the talking. At the end of the table, Democratic Juneau Sen. Jesse Kiehl—who looked like he’s already adopted the double-masking that health experts suggest—kept his on while Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes, a cancer survivor, seemed to be torn as she sat between her maskless Republican colleagues. She eventually put hers back on.

It felt like one of those moments we’ve all had in a Fred Meyer when we bump into what seems like the only person in the whole building who can’t be bothered to take the mild inconvenience of wearing a mask for the sake of everyone’s health. In those moments, we’re reminded: the mask is really only supposed to stop you from spreading it. Not from getting it. Wearing a mask is everyone else’s last line. Not specifically yours. 

Reinbold, Shower, Myers and that aide all crossed that line. And Reinbold crossed it while smirking. 

Let’s be clear, the committee chairs absolutely do not have the power to set masking policy within their own committees and an email quickly went out to the building informing everyone that committee chairs cannot, in fact, waive the rules. Such a matter was discussed at the Legislative Council meeting before the start of session and it was rejected because it would create a patchwork of masking policies in a building filled with people concerned about catching covid and concerned about their job security if they dare ask a senator to put on her mask. Sen. Gary Stevens said he was concerned legislative aides and building staff would walk away if the Legislature wasn’t willing to protect their health.

Eventually, Reinbold was told what we all knew: She didn’t have the power to waive anything. Refusing to wear a mask comes with a $250 fine for the first offense and $500 for the following offenses.

Reinbold’s actions not only send the message that she doesn’t believe in covid but that she doesn’t believe in the basic decency of taking minor measures to protect her colleagues’ health or the health of the people working around her. She talks as if everyone who’s been wearing a mask, who’s supported limited capacities and has foregone family visits is doing it for fun. As if the whole goal of the pandemic is to inconvenience her and her followers. No, Lora, when we see crowded bars, hot tub parties and big get togethers, a lot of us are thinking “Gee, that must be nice to not care like that.”

And on Thursday, this made an appearance. 

Over the last couple Friday in the Suns, I’ve talked a bit about the organization of the Senate around Republicans. The prevailing story is something along the lines of: Sen. Scott Kawasaki wanted the chair of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee so the moderate Republicans were forced to caucus with the Republicans and therefore it’s his fault—and somehow only his fault—that Reinbold has a platform to spout off on covid.

The more I’ve been thinking about the whole “It’s Scott’s fault” narrative (of which there are perhaps things that suggest it’s not even the whole story that we detailed last week), the more I have to wonder, was having him at the head of LB&A really so bad that caucusing with and empowering folks with Reinbold was the better choice here?

It’s like saying, “Man, I was SO upset by a plan to treat the homeless like humans that I HAD NO CHOICE but to defend some obviously pro-Nazi license plates.”

House organization

The House took its first meaningful step toward organizing this week with the election of Rep. Josiah Aullaqsruaq Patkotak as the temporary speaker, a position traditionally occupied for a matter of minutes in order to oversee the election of permanent House Speaker. 

That the nomination came from a Republican was an interesting move given Patkotak’s firm commitment to sticking with the Bush Caucus, a key piece of the 20-member bipartisan coalition. The talk, which has been going on since before the election, is that Republicans are hopeful that Patkotak, a pro-industry guy, can be lured over to a decidedly anti-Rural Republican majority. Perhaps Thursday’s nomination was an attempt at that but all it yielded was a firm commitment from Patkotak that he’s sticking with the Bush Caucus. 

The House is still no closer to electing a permanent speaker. Far-right Republican Rep. Sarah Vance curiously nominated moderate Rep. Steve Thompson for permanent speaker today, curious because by most accounts the organizational plan preferred by House Republicans is to sideline far-right legislators like her in order to forge an evenly split middle of the road bipartisan coalition. 

I’ve wondered how such a proposal has been sitting with its membership but, hey, according to their news release things have never been better. 

“I really appreciate the support from the Republican caucus, and I’m very humbled they nominated me for Speaker of the House,” Thompson said in a prepared statement. “I am ready to serve the caucus and the House. I hope we can get the legislature moving because we have work to do.”

The $1.2 billion question

Aside from everything else, the Senate Finance Committee continues to drill away at the litany of budget problems they hope to tackle this year. Things keep on coming back to the governor’s inclusion of $1.2 billion in new revenue next year when his administration is simultaneously opposing implementing new revenue. Senate Finance Committee chairman Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, cut to the heart of the issue this week, noting that it’s really just an effort to mask that Dunleavy’s budget is not, in fact, balanced and would leave a gaping hole in it next year with fewer and fewer options to fill it: “We had a future deficit couched as future revenue,” he said on Wednesday. “I don’t think couching it as future revenue helps the Department of Revenue pay the bills.”  

To date, the only new revenue the governor has proposed is the legalization of gambling. Previous proposals wouldn’t make a dent in the budget deficit—especially when the deficit is $1.2 billion—but, hey, why not pay out a half-million dollars to hire a consultant?

The Alaska Checkbook is bad

Speaking of frivolous state spending, the Alaska Checkbook is finally back and it’s just as bad and largely useless to most Alaskans as it has ever been. Let’s pass Wielechowski’s Senate Bill 25 and be done with it.

All the rest

Alright, it’s that time of day when things are getting late and all these 7 a.m. morning are catching up with me. Here’s a rundown of a bunch of other things:

  • The deadline for year-start reports is still a week and change away but Anchorage mayoral candidates Forrest Dunbar and Mike Robbins have theirs in early. With some cash already in hand, the progressive Dunbar leads with a campaign total of $252,200. The conservative Robbins is not too far behind with a campaign total of $210,000. It’ll be interesting to see where the many other mayoral candidates stand, but both figures and their early submission sends the message that they see themselves as the frontrunners.
  • Lately, Fridays have proved to be an interesting source of late-breaking news and this Friday is no different. Apparently the Pebble Partnership has been served with a grand jury subpoena in Alaska that, according to a statement from parent company Northern Dynasty Minerals, is connected to an investigation “apparently involving previously disclosed recordings of private conversations regarding the Pebble Project.”
  • Meanwhile, it sounds like Trump’s efforts to breath new life into the Pebble Project was afoot well before Gov. Mike Dunleavy won election, according to this report by E&E News. Huh, turns out that all of Dunleavy’s behind-the-scenes shilling for the project didn’t, in fact, get the ball rolling. Sad!
  • Oh, I got my Twitter account suspended for 12 hours for live-tweeting a meeting where Sen. Lora Reinbold was going off on about how vaccines cause deaths and paralyze people. Apparently, live-tweeting the Legislature and tweeting out disinformation look a lot alike. I talked with Coast Alaska’s Jacob Resneck about the whole situation: Twitter suspends reporter relaying legislator’s vaccine skepticism

Have a nice weekend y’all

Oh! I keep forgetting to mention it, but Pat Race and I recorded a podcast last weekend in case you need to hear more grousing about Alaska politics.

Oh, and this was silly

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