Welcome to the latest edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column attempting the impossible task of getting caught up on the week’s news and rumors from the Alaska political world.
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As a suggestion from a friend of the blog and newsletter, here’s a handy way to jump past the stuff in Friday’s newsletter to the new and fleshed out stuff for anyone who’s already done the required reading: Too long; already read.
That’s how Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, described Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s letter that excoriated her for spreading false and misleading information about the covid-19 pandemic and the state’s response during an unhinged news conference outside of the Senate chambers on Thursday. It was about what you’d expect from a senator with what an already-established loose grasp on reality and a creative understanding of how the U.S. Constitution, the Alaska Constitution and libel laws work (namely, she seems to subscribe to the legal doctrine of ‘Everything I do is fine and everything you do isn’t’). Without providing any evidence, she offered several Trumpian claims about not only how “It has been found that his allegations are inaccurate,” but that his “nuclear political weapon” was an unconstitutional broach of due process and an illegal allocation of state resources for a political purpose. She also bragged about her “exemplary” track record of public service, adding the preposterous claim that “My integrity and work ethic have never been questioned” (It has, many times by many people). She closed by demanding that the governor retract the letter, basically come to her begging for forgiveness and issue a “sincere apology.” Wonder if she’d accept a “Sorry if I offended you” cake.
In all honesty, Reinbold’s antics are becoming a tiresome distraction now that the Legislature is starting to finally hum along with committee meetings and issues of far larger importance than her ego at play (the Senate chambers had to be cleared out so the mask-less Reinbold could hold her show). The meetings of the Senate Judiciary Committee have become a tri-weekly descent into a far-right sideshow where it seems like we’re just a half-step away from full-blown hearings on QAnon conspiracy theories. Like Trump, the whole thing was fun to gawk at until it wasn’t.
What’s interesting, though, is what one politico pointed out. This performance took place just steps away from where then-Sen. Mike Dunleavy announced his departure from the Republican Majority over the dividend fight in a similarly disjointed and largely nonsensical news conference. Looking back on everything, it was clearly a grab at the spotlight—and claim to the dividend fight—that laid the groundwork for his run for governor. It’s hard not to wonder if Reinbold might be considering a similar move, sensing weakness on Dunleavy’s right. She’s certainly been working to create connections with extreme-right national figures who’ve gained traction (and made plenty of money) by spreading precisely the kind of disinformation and conspiracy thinking that we’ve seen on display in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
While it may not ultimately culminate with a crowded conservative side of the Republican ticket, it certainly has laid bare just how fractured the Alaska Republican Party is becoming with a faction deep into extreme-right conspiracy theories in Reinbold, the far-right side in Dunleavy and the increasingly diminished moderate wing of the party that, I guess, is Rep. Kelly Merrick’s wing now? Yeesh. The 2022 election with ranked-choice voting (which the Division of Elections began previewing this week) is going to be very, very interesting.
Also, kudos to the folks behind Alaskans for Posterity for sending Eagle River households Dunleavy’s letter. I had to read it several times before realizing that it wasn’t Americans for Prosperity that was fanning the flames of Republican infighting.
A much-needed apology
Following a minor dustup earlier in the week, the House today approved a Sense of the House resolution that reprimanded Rep. Zack Fields’ comments about Rep. Sara Rasmussen last week and stated that such comments have no place on the House floor. Mercifully, no one decided to make a fight out of this. Rep. Fields issued a sincere apology acknowledging that it’ll take action and not just words to make up for his comments. Rep. Sara Rasmussen said that after reflecting on everything that’s transpired in the week since, it should serve as “a moment of growth and learning so we as a society can do better in the future and not have to endure some of these things that we’re talking about today.” She also said there’s nothing “woke” about trying to solve the problems facing Alaska and spoke tenderly about her own children growing up in a world that’s often cruel, saying she hopes that current legislators take actions to make it better for when the next generation takes over. Honestly, it was about the kind of resolution you’d hope to see: Fields took his lumps and offered a sincere apology that contained no “Sorry if I offended you” or attempts to explain away his crummy statements, while promising to make some meaningful changes.
It’s still a crummy situation for Rasmussen, who I’m sure would rather be focused on just about anything else.
Of course, Minority Leader Cathy Tilton had to go and wonder aloud if the House would show “such restraint” if a Republican had said something like Fields did about a Democratic member. To which, I’d ask, do you think one of her members would have apologized?
We’ve heard that there is certainly merit to the rumors Reinbold is looking to hire Dunleavy’s former budget director Donna Arduin, which Alaska Landmine’s Jeff Landfield tweeted about this week. The whole thing is a bizarre play that puts Rules Committee Chair Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, in an interesting spot as the ultimate decider of who does and doesn’t get hired in the building. I have no inside track on where the leadership would be landing on this and Reinbold’s opportunities to make mischief on the budget is relatively limited, but on the one hand approving the hire could be a thumb in the governor’s eye (though it’d likely be a source of constant headaches for the Legislature) while rejecting the hire may very well lead to Reinbold’s exit from the majority (which is probably a win-win for everyone involved unless, of course, Reinbold takes other extreme-right senators with her).
That good ol boys club
It’s been two weeks since Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price was forced out for some sort of still-unexplained dust up with the governor’s office over the demotion of Alaska Wildlife Troopers head Doug Massie, who helped secure the Alaska Public Safety Employee’s Association endorsement of Dunleavy and got the job in return. Still no explanation of precisely what happened, but Price went to Facebook this week to note that Dunleavy’s “buddy, neighbor and deliverer of PSEA union endorsement” has been promoted. “That good ole boys club going strong. Politics should have no place in public safety, a sentiment Governor Dunleavy does not share.”
Reinbold/Price 2022? Alright, that’s the last of the Reinbold mentions.
The House Health and Social Services Committee has been putting in the work to put into crystal clear focus just how bad of an idea this rushed split of the Department of Health and Social Services is. And it’s pretty bad, even by the low standards set by the Dunleavy administration. The administration can muster very few specifics to explain why the split needs to be made other than to suggest that DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum, who many said was underqualified for the job, can’t handle all the duties of the job. It seems that they’re largely focused on fixing the problems facing the Office of Children’s Services, which former Rep. Tammie Wilson has been quietly working from within the Dunelavy administration to “fix” for a few years now. But instead of any specific changes in state law or an improvement plan, it seems that the administration’s solution is a slate of new executives and a price tag of about $5 million annually.
The House HSS Committee heard on Wednesday from several groups that were stiffly opposed to the split, arguing that there’s nothing in the plan but uncertainty for how services will be offered. Tanana Chiefs Conference Chief PJ Simon told the committee that it was also pretty conspicuous that many of the services slated to be parceled out into the Department of Family and Community Services are ones that the administration has tried to either cut or privatize. Though we did get to hear some glancing support for the change from none other than Americans for Prosperity, which both Reps. Ivy Spohnholz and Zack Fields seized on noting that it was nice to hear that they finally saw the benefit of state employees even if those state employees served no discernable purpose.
Also, don’t buy into the administration’s phony claims that the whole thing will save the state millions of dollars. Many of the cuts the state is quoting in their materials are things they’ve already done under the existing structure. When challenged about their misleading presentations, Crum has deflected claiming that it’s not really about savings but improved services, which, again, are not clearly explained in any depth here.
The committee today introduced a resolution that seeks to stop the executive order on the split, which would need to be halted by March 21. House Special Concurrent Resolution 1 faces an interesting path forward as it needs to heard by a committee in each body once before going to a joint session of both chambers where a majority vote would be needed. While the House is certainly trending against the measure, the Senate has been less clear. Several hearings on the split this week were canceled and Senate President Peter Micciche seems to be on board, echoing the administration’s misleading numbers on the savings in an interview with Radio Kenai last week.
It sounded like there was initially some agreement to pump the brakes on things, but it sounds like it may be more muddled now.
Not so fast
The Senate added a Senate Finance Committee referral to Senate Bill 14, far-right legislation aimed at inserting the Legislature into the appointment process for magistrates and judges on the District Court and the Court of Appeals. It’s a notable development after Sens. Lora Reinbold, Mike Shower and Shelley Hughes zeroed out the costs of the bill earlier this week as part of an effort to hurry the bill along the process. The Senate Finance Committee is far more moderate than that trio. Backstory: In quest to politicize the courts, far-right senators look the other way on bill’s cost
The Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing focused on Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka’s proposal to close several DMV offices in smaller road system communities. It’s been one of the more bizarre proposals given that the DMV not only pays for itself but returns many, many millions of dollars to the state’s coffers. The plan also, unsurprisingly, is to have private companies (one of which has a close tie to DHSS Commissioner Crum) open up their own offices in these communities where they’d be charging Alaskans up to twice as much for the same services.
Particularly galling about the whole thing was Tshibaka’s explanation as to why they’re closing the smaller communities rather than, say, the Anchorage offices is because the pushback in the smaller communities is less strong. The exchange is summed up well in this story by CoastAlaska: Senators skeptical over Dunleavy plan to privatize rural DMVs
Sen. Jesse Kiehl (D-Juneau) says he doesn’t follow the logic of rolling out public-private partnerships in relatively small communities.
“Help me understand the reasoning that we’ve gone to six in the middle, instead of the biggest cities if this is really no great inconvenience to regular Alaskans,” Kiehl said.
The commissioner replied that this modestly scaled plan had received push back which would likely be more intense if larger cities were involved.
“This has been a pretty controversial proposal just in the magnitude that it is,” she said. “If you’d like us to come back and consider something larger, we’d be happy to introduce that too.”
At least Sen. Mike Shower, who spent most of the meeting doing Tshibaka’s work in trying to justify how the closures are actually great, eventually conceded that the increases “are fairly significant.”
KTOO’s Jeremy Hsieh has handed off the torch for everyone’s favorite legislative guessing game, the #GavelClassic. I’ve fiddled with the system a bit so instead of trying to track down everyone’s guess on Twitter, there’s now a handy google form to submit your guesses here. So get guessing!
And, as always, have a nice weekend, y’all.