Welcome to the latest edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column capping off the week that was in Alaska political news. As always, speculating on the state of the state’s political system is a favored pastime of many political observers, perhaps only second to hanging out at the Triangle.
As always, take everything with a grain of salt, be kind and patient with others and yourself, and keep watchin’ the skies. Also, if you’re a reader of The Midnight Sun Memo (and if not, why? Subscribe!), then you can feel free to skim the first one and a half sections.
From 2020 to 21
The House has been unorganized for several weeks that have featured little more than a handful of unproductive 20-20 votes on the chamber’s organization and the occasional volley of press releases. Both sides of the issue—the House Coalition (15 Democrats, four independents and Republican Rep. Stutes) and the party-line Republicans—have been firm that it’s their side that should wield the reins of power in whatever majority coalition finally forms. Despite the posturing, the House Republicans face more internal divisions than the House Coalition with a cadre of extreme-right legislators who’ve been quiet as of late but would likely drag the House into a morass of disinformation if given the opportunity (see also the Senate Judiciary, State Affairs and Health and Social Services committees). Still, it’s likely that impasse would continue if not for the disaster declaration’s looming expiration.
It’s that Sunday night deadline that seems to be the key motivating factor for newly minted-moderate Republican Rep. Kelly Merrick to break ranks from her colleagues and support Stutes as permanent speaker but that doesn’t mean she’s committed to joining the House Coalition.
“To be clear, I have not joined the Alaska House Coalition,” she said in a statement after the vote. “However, like most Alaskans, I have been frustrated by taking the same fruitless votes day after day and I felt we could no longer afford to delay extending the Governor’s emergency disaster declaration, crafting a fiscally conservative budget, and passing the construction jobs bill.”
So that’s how we get to a speaker but no majority.
“I am tremendously honored to receive the support of my colleagues and ready to get work building new opportunities for Alaskans and confronting the difficult issues our state faces,” Speaker Stutes said in a prepared statement after the vote. “We welcome members from all political backgrounds to join our coalition.”
From what it sounds like, the potential vote for House Speaker Stutes only started to circulate as a possibility in the moments ahead of the floor session on Thursday, taking many on the Republican side of the aisle by complete surprise. It’s not entirely surprising, then, that the House doesn’t have a ready-made majority organization to declare but it sounds like those talks are underway with more energy than before. As for how it might all play out, folks are keeping their cards very close to their chest right now and I’ve been told that it’s largely in the hands of the legislators themselves to figure out. It’ll probably take the weekend.
It’s at a moment like this that I’m reminded of the advice long-time public radio reporter Dave Donaldson gave me when I was a covering my first legislative session in 2012. There was some shenanigans going on over an oil bill on the final Saturday or Sunday of session. Things were moving fast and it felt like I was running myself ragged trying to keep up with every minute’s development on the legislation. “When’s your deadline?” he asked me, according to my vague memory. “Mine’s not until tomorrow. Let’s go get a cup of coffee and let them sort it out.” Nearly a decade later, and I still find myself thinking how nice of a day it was outside the building. And, sure enough, he was right. Things were sorted out by the time we got back.
The one piece of guidance that I’ll offer for how this all plays out is this chart from the Legislature’s Uniform Rules that outlines how many seats a minority caucus is due depending on their membership. The key House Finance Committee has 11 members, House Resources has nine and most others have seven. Members crossing over to the House Coalition will have a fair bit of leverage, which means they can still maximize Republican control even if the Democrat-led coalition is the majority of the majority.
Still, the election of House Speaker Stutes was met with pretty wide approval. It means that Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, will leave the post as the chamber’s first Alaska Native speaker but Stutes has been a close ally and shares much of his priorities when it comes to defending rural and coastal Alaska from urban-driven cuts. Stutes has been a fierce supporter of the Alaska Marine Highway System, citing it as one of the reasons for sticking with the House Coalition after the election.
Meanwhile, the backlash to Rep. Merrick has been furious with several Republican legislators past and present going to social media to claim that they knew Merrick, whose husband, Joey Merrick, is the business manager of Laborers’ Local 341, was a RINO all along. It’s an unsurprising turn for a party that has been hyper-focused on party purity over everything but still a bad look, especially when they’d need Merrick to remain uncommitted to joining the House Coalition if they have any hope of a Republican-led majority.
“She and Louise are not true Republicans, they are fake Republicans,” wrote former Rep. Colleen Sullivan-Leonard on Twitter.
The emergency declaration
Along with the backdrop of the internal divisions of the GOP, there’s also the whole pandemic thing that’s still going on. There’s a lot of unknowns and a lot of concern about what will happen if the state allows the current disaster declaration expire at its Sunday night deadline. There’s somewhat nebulous things like its impacts on vaccine distribution and outbreak response to the far more concrete fact the state could lose out on $8 million a month in boosted federal support for the SNAP benefits.
Without a House majority in place and without agreement in the Senate over whether an extension by law is even merited, a majority of legislators are pushing on Gov. Mike Dunleavy to extend the disaster declaration without legislative approval as he’s already done twice. To be clear, the law doesn’t permit the governor extending a disaster declaration without legislative approval but whether the courts would strike it down is another matter. By the letter of the law, the Legislature’s attorneys have argued, such an extension would be legally vulnerable but that also would take someone to bring a lawsuit. The typical group to bring such a lawsuit would be the Legislature, which currently doesn’t have a functioning Legislative Council to approve such a suit.
So it’s with that that the Legislature is trying to at least give the governor some type of cover—allowing the governor to argue that the Legislature would support his actions if it is challenged by another group—in the form of strongly worded letters. The House Coalition has already circulated a letter calling for Dunleavy to extend the declaration and Rep. Chris Tuck implored his colleagues today to join in on that effort, telling the chamber that “Alaskans are counting on us.” They’ve reportedly got a 21st supporter, according to KTOO reporter Andrew Kitchenman, but it’s not entirely clear whether that will be a the same letter or perhaps something else.
House Republicans would later issue a similar letter, though they only managed to get 15 of their 20 members (Merrick included) to sign.
Meanwhile the Senate moved ahead with an official action that carries about an ounce or two more weight than the House Coalition’s letter. On an 11-6 vote the Senate approved a simple resolution asking the governor to issue a narrow extension of the disaster declaration while the Senate and House sort themselves out. It was the minority Democrats who were particularly critical of the plan, noting that it carried no legal weight and only served to blur the separation of powers even further.
Senate President Peter Micciche made the rare move of handing over his gavel in order to speak on the measure, imploring passage of the measure. He acknowledged that the pandemic has hit Alaska Natives and Pacific Islander communities much harder than white Alaskans. He said while no one is particularly thrilled with the mandates pushed by local communities (there’s a lot of shade aimed at Anchorage) the disaster declaration contains many measures critical to the state’s recovery on everything from the distribution of the vaccine to directed benefits.
“Please, for God’s sake,” he said.
Now everything is largely in Gov. Dunleavy’s hands. He could decide to extend it unilaterally at the very least knowing that the Legislature, his chief legal opponent, has given him a slim majority of support and isn’t in a place to sue anyways. However, he’s also downplayed the possible impacts of allowing the declaration to expire during his news conference earlier this week.
In a statement released late-late Friday afternoon he said, “In the absence of a declaration, my administration is fully prepared to manage the rollout and distribution of the vaccine to ensure anyone that wants a vaccination will be able to get one. We will also continue to respond to COVID-19 as we begin the process of getting back to normal as soon as possible by focusing on the economy and assisting Alaskans in staying healthy. As we move forward, we will notify Alaska and stakeholders of our plans.”
So that kinda sounds like no.
In what has become a tradition of late-Friday breaking news that reveals the innerworkings of the Dunleavy administration are even more troubled than even the most fervent Recall Dunleavy supporter would have imagined, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price has been forced out of her job for what she says was butting heads with the governor’s office.
In a terse release that makes the administration’s friendly send-off of alleged sexual assaulter Ed Sniffen look even worse in retrospect, the administration announced it had “accepted the resignation of Amanda Price as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety. The Governor wishes to thank Price for moving the department forward during her tenure.”
Rumors of the change had been swirling through the afternoon after Price had apparently sent a department-wide email about being forced out. She went to Facebook to air her grievances, which amount to a dispute over an attempt to consolidate 911 call centers from Kenai and Mat-Su into a centralized service that she says would better serve rural Alaska and the demotion of Division of Alaska Wildlife Troopers Director Doug Massie.
“The second pinnacle was reached when I made a recent personnel decision. I am limited by my discussion of this action. On its face this personnel decision is a decision well within my statutory authority,” she wrote. “However the are some mitigating factors that made my removal of this individual untenable for the governor. There is much documentation on each of these incidents.”
Price didn’t provide any additional details about Massie but ADN reporter Kyle Hopkins pointed out that the Public Safety Employees Association endorsed Dunleavy when Massie was president and Massie named to the director position following Dunleavy’s inauguration.
I’ve been told there’s “A LOT” more going on here with Massie’s demotion.
One thing to keep in mind, too, is just how much pushback Price faced in being appointed to this position and why she faced it. There were many questions swirling around her job performance under the Walker administration (allegations of not showing up and plagiarizing at other times), lying to the Senate, the fact that she had no direct experience in law enforcement and over questions about her ability or inability to pass a high-level background check. According to the Alaska Landmine, former Deputy Chief of Staff Amy Demboski reportedly authored a report on Amanda Price shortly after she was appointed before former Chief of Staff Tuckerman Babcock ordered the report to be destroyed.
The pushback among the Legislature was so fierce that the Dunleavy administration eventually committed state resources to the fight in the form of a state-funded advertising blitz in support of her (this was alongside the state-funded ad campaign that’s now one of the grounds for the recall) and uniformed troopers were often trotted out in support of her.
It must be approaching 5 p.m., so here’s the quick hits from the rest of the notebook:
- The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority quietly approved a plan to spend $35 million on developing the deeply unpopular Ambler Road project. It’s the latest approval from a board that doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in conducting its business in the public’s eye or even hearing from the public for that matter.
- Legislative liaison supervisor Juliana Melin is reportedly leaving the governor’s office at the end of the month… in the middle of session. No word on why.
- Running and losing against Rep. Grier Hopkins appears to be a resume builder for the Dunleavy administration. Today, the governor told the Senate that he’s appointing Hopkins’ 2020 challenger Keith Kurber to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska (a job with a nearly $4,000 per month salary). 2018 Hopkins challenger Jim Sackett was hired as the manager of Dunleavy’s Fairbanks office.
- The Attorneys General change but they keep on losing. One of the administration’s earliest tenuous legal efforts was a shot at unions where disgraced now-former Attorney General Kevin Clarkson argued that Janus v. AFSCME meant the state could further undercut unions and meddle with dues collection. In a case that was/is clearly intended to go to the U.S. Supreme Court, the administration hired Trump attorneys at $600/hour over the Legislature’s objections—amounting to a roughly $600,000 bill. On Monday, an Anchorage Supreme Court justice ruled against the state, awarding the Alaska State Employees Association $186,000 in damages and issuing a permanent injunction against the state’s anti-union efforts. Dang.
- Democrats are running several good bills in the Senate and, hey, they’re getting some actual traction for once. One of those bills by Sen. Tom Begich would give essential workers a pathway to a college degree or career training. It was widely popular except for with Sen. Mia Costello, who seemed preoccupied with the matter of who’ll bag groceries if the grocery store workers can go to college. “I keep coming back to the fact that if they have an opportunity to go to school they’ll leave their position. Have you talked to any grocery store managers in Anchorage or in the state about how this bill might impact their workforce?” Yikes.
- Sens. Mike Shower and Lora Reinbold sure know how to pick ’em. The Senate Judiciary and State Affairs committees have been home to some particularly bonkers testimony that makes Rudy Giuliani’s boozed-up testifier look like a teetotaler. We could write a whole Friday in the Sun about them if only we could be certain we wouldn’t catch something but we’ll highlight the very best from this week’s testimony…
Have a good weekend y’all.