Hello and welcome to the latest edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column attempting to make sense of the week that was in Alaska politics that is continuing to blur the lines more and more between The Midnight Sun Memo (who knew that producing a daily newsletter (subscribe here!) and a blog is a lot of work!).
In what is likely to become a growing trend, this is largely just the same as the free edition of the newsletter that just went out with maybe a little extra that I forgot to stick into there and, hey, maybe there’s stuff in there that aren’t in there! Ugh, I really need to sort this out. ANYWAYS, as always, you can get ahold of me at [email protected]. If you’ve already read the newsletter, skip ahead to the section with Sullivan in it.
A mockery of a charade
By now, hopefully you’ve seen the letter Gov. Mike Dunleavy sent to Reinbold excoriating her for spreading disinformation, impugning the motivations of state officials handling the pandemic and for generally wasting the administration’s time and resources with a bunch of requests based in “idle speculation” (If not, you can find a copy of it here, it’s really worth a read). He’s taken the remarkable move of informing extreme-right chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee that he’s ordered his administration to cease any and all cooperation with Reinbold, her office or her committee, writing that “the resources of the State of Alaska are not yours to abuse for your own, as yet undiscernible, personal benefit. … I will not continue to subject the public resources of the state of Alaska to the mockery of a charade, disguised as public discourse.” It’s not entirely clear what finally broke the camel’s back here but when his communication is harsher than what he had aimed at the Alaska Federation of Natives over opposition to his initial budget or former House Speaker Bryce Edgmon and the folks out in Dillingham for opposing Pebble Mine that must’ve been one heckuva final straw.
Dunleavy even suggested she’s violated her oath of office and several legislative rules and said it’s “lamentable” that her constituents have her as their senator. It’s a remarkable move for the governor to take such a direct line against a legislator, let alone one from his own party. Though as one observer pointed out, what really seemed to anger the governor is the claim that he’s been doing too much to combat the pandemic. Dunleavy even argues this point in his letter, noting the administration has taken a softball approach to the pandemic, refusing to answer the call for a statewide mask mandate.
While Republicans have been generally quiet about Reinbold’s antics on social media and as the chair of the Judiciary Committee and as the member of several other committees, we’ve heard that behind the scenes there’s been quite a bit of alarm at the extreme-right politics of Reinbold and other legislators especially after January 6 so clearly exposed the danger of what the party has been humoring for years. Such repulsion from the far-right seemed to play at least a small part in the departure of Reps. Kelly Merrick and Sara Rasmussen from the minority House Republican caucus. And as if to punctuate everything in Dunleavy’s letter, Reinbold had planned on holding a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting today to hear from Simone Gold, an extreme-right doctor who’s been hocking hydroxychloroquine as an easy remedy for COVID-19 and just so happens to be facing federal charges for her role in the insurrection. (Find her charging documents here.)
The meeting was canceled by Senate President Peter Micciche, who said the caucus plans to meet on Monday to discuss potential actions, if any, against Reinbold. Micciche, to his “credit,” has previously waved away Reinbold’s antics as a difference of style and said the “Caucus of Equals” doesn’t leash any of its members.
Still, Reinbold has been toxic for the Legislature, derailing committees, dragging down fellow Republicans in her orbit and inviting hours of particularly bizarre public testimony. Even live-tweeting her claims about the safety of the covid vaccine are enough to get a political writer (that’d be me, Matt Buxton) suspended from Twitter because even repeating what an elected official was saying looked too much like disinformation itself. While people may still chafe at Democrats for allegedly derailing a coalition in the Senate, it’s hard to overlook that it was ultimately the moderate and mainstream Republicans who chose to caucus with Reinbold, giving her the platform of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the vice chairmanship of the Legislative Council (which is responsible for setting the Legislature’s covid safety policies) and membership on several other key committees.
What’s going to be particularly interesting is what impact, if any, this has moving forward. For Reinbold, it’s going to be impossible to let this slight stand especially when there’s political value in appealing to the extreme-right. For Dunleavy, it’s frankly one of the first broadly popular moves he’s made while in office but a betrayal of the extreme-right, diehard Trump base. For the Senate Republicans, it’s certainly a predicament given their already-weak claim to power in the chamber but with moderates serving as the gatekeepers of everything with both the Finance and Rules committees in their hands it’s probably not quite enough to merit a reorganization.
Another political observer wondered just what might happen when it comes to the gubernatorial election in 2022, especially under the open primary and ranked-choice general election. What kind of race will it be if it’s Dunleavy, a Reinbold-y candidate to his right (perhaps just Reinbold because why not?), a progressive Democrat and someone like Bill Walker (again, perhaps, just Bill Walker)? Food for thought.
The House organized
The House is finally organized and ready to hold committee hearings next week, which I’m frankly thrilled about. It’s going to be a refreshing change of pace to have two chambers worth of meetings to pick from, giving everyone an alternative to watching the latest look into the abyss that is Reinbold’s Senate Judiciary Committee. And most importantly, we can get a break from the hour-by-hour developments on the internal drama of the House.
Things looked precarious for a moment following Rep. Geran Tarr’s departure from the House Coalition over a committee dispute (something several politicos said was frustrating but not entirely unexpected given Tarr’s history of not being the easiest to work with). If she sticks it out as an independent legislator, it could make it difficult for the 20-member House Coalition to get across the finish line but it sounds like she’s working to mend things. During a special order today, she said “Today I am a caucus of one, which is good for social distancing, but I’m hoping to find a home with other members soon.”
I never got around to finishing a write-up given the precarious position of the House, but the moderate House is going to serve as a serious backstop to whatever far-right policy proposals come out of the Senate, especially on elections and the judiciary. Just what it’ll mean for the dividend, the state’s budget and new revenue isn’t entirely clear but it’s important to keep in mind that most of the moderate Republicans who’ve opposed taxes and supported cutting the dividend were defeated in the last primary. House Finance Committee co-chair Rep. Kelly Merrick is a significant shift from the hardline anti-tax Rep. Jennifer Johnston in the sense that she seems to believe in a more balanced approach to the state’s financial crisis.
It’ll also be interesting to watch what comes out of the newly formed House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Anchorage Democratic Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, to focus on state spending and potential new revenues. There’s going to be significant pushback to any new broad-based taxes like an income or sales taxes, including from within the House’s Democratic membership who say oil taxes should come first, but we’ll see.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s track record with lawsuits is not great. He was dealt another loss on Thursday when a Superior Court judge sided with the Legislature in declaring the governor’s attempts to keep his appointments on board past the deadline set in state statute was, in fact, illegal. The decision affects about 100 appointees in just about every corner of state government.
Its impact is not entirely clear quite yet. During the arguments on the case, there was some discussion about the actions taken by these members could be thrown into legal question—which is particularly important given the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority’s votes to invest in ANWR and the controversial Ambler Mining Road were made during this window. The Alaska Legislature has until Tuesday next week to suggest a remedy. So far, the Legislature has not called for the drastic action of reversing all the decisions.
“I consider…. Senator—Senator Cruz a friend of mine…”
With Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in the headlines for pulling off quite possibly the worst political maneuver possible for someone with ambitions to be president, I was reminded of the time back in 2016 when I was still cover the Legislature in-person when I got to ask Sen. Dan Sullivan if it was true that Cruz had any friends in Congress. I tracked down the clip here:
Let’s just say, I wouldn’t be thrilled if this was a friend’s response when asked if I had any friends…
I consider…. Matt–Matt Buxton a friend of mine… and I've worked well with him.— Pat Race (@alaskarobotics) February 18, 2021
Things to keep an eye out for:
- The Department of Health and Social Services split. The Senate Finance Committee started to dig into the proposal to split the department into the Department of Health and the Department of Family and Community Services. Like I found when starting to dig through the executive order, there’s surprisingly little substance or explanation of what the split would accomplish. Most of what’s contained in that order, including the corporal discipline of children, is already in existing state statute. The administration’s best explanation is that with 13 more executive positions to hand out to their friends there’ll be more folks available to focus in on specific issues. The ongoing costs of the split is about $5 million, which the Senate isn’t particularly keen to hear. Just what they’ll do, if anything, isn’t quite clear but they’ll be pushing ahead to hear more on that.
- The governor’s budget proposal still isn’t quite finalized. The Senate Finance Committee went over the amendments to the budget today but found things, like the request for APOC to implement Ballot Measure 2, weren’t included. The irony of APOC missing a filing deadline was not missed on a politico who wondered if they’d be paying a daily fine.
- Voting suppression legislation. The Senate State Affairs Committee bounced its anticipated public testimony session on Sen. Mike Shower’s election “reform” measure. Its outlook just got a lot more tough with the organization of the House.
- How minority Republicans handle being minority Republicans for the third session in a row. The extreme-right Republicans like Rep. David Eastman had been largely silent up until the organization of the House at which he went back to the old days of objecting to just about anything he found objectionable. That’s largely to be expected, but it’s going to be interesting to see how former coalition members Bart LeBon and Steve Thompson and other presumably moderate members navigate things.
- The Legislature’s covid rules. Now that the Legislature is fully organized, they can take a more earnest crack at revising and/or jettisoning their covid precautions. They’ve already loosened the rules on the media’s presence in the galleries. Will allowing legislators stand while speaking on the floor be next?
- Late-breaking news. Last week at this time, we were grappling with the news of Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price’s sudden resignation. It’s a quarter after five and we haven’t seen anything quite yet, but you never ever do really know.
- Outside the Legislature, things are getting interesting in the Anchorage mayoral race. Progressive candidate Bill Falsey certainly got some attention after his handling of Dave Bronson in this clip put together by the Alaska Landmine from the Tuesday-night forum:
(From the newsletter)
- Anchorage’s housing situation isn’t great, and the city has seen an outmigration of Alaskans (due to a lot of reasons) of about 10,000 people since hitting a high of about 301,000 residents in 2013. The Sightline Institute has started to look into the problem of a lack of moderately priced homes and suggests that there needs to be an improvement when it comes to accessory dwelling units (think mother-in-law apartments, above-garage studios, that sort of thing). The city has changed some of its rules to encourage more of this kind of housing, which would make it easier for people to move into desirable neighborhoods, but hasn’t seen a significant change. One of the significant impediments to more of these kinds of housing options is the requirement that the owner live on the property, making banks wary of investing in such improvements. From Sightline Institute: Anchorage needs more moderately priced homes: Let’s start wtih ADUs
- One of the biggest underreported storylines of the pandemic is just how disproportionate its impacts have been felt. That’s particularly true in the education system where access to internet, stable home life and food security have been a huge determining factor in who succeeds and who doesn’t with at-home learning. Schools and the Legislature are grappling with this issue right now as they consider what resources and programs are needed to ensure students aren’t left behind during this lost year. Summer school is becoming a focal point for many school districts, including the Anchorage School District that’s currently considering an expanded program. “At home, all the families didn’t have the same resources, they didn’t have the same time or space to do the learning,” Creekside Park Elementary School kindergarten teacher Kelley Carpenter told KTUU. “And now they come here and we have ‘the haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ and that’s my biggest challenge is getting everybody where they need to be and meeting all their individual learning needs.” From Alaska’s News Source: Anchorage School District looks at robust summer school plans for students to catch up
- The U.S. House Natural Resource Committee voted Thursday to ban guns from the chamber and Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young wants to know if they’ll have to tie everyone’s hands behind their back because the 87-year-old representative reminded everyone that he knows how to kill with his hands. From Alaska Public Media: Even without a gun, Alaska’s Rep. Young tells congressional committee, his hands can kill
Have a nice weekend, y’all.