Saturday in the Sun (March 13): The What a Year edition

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Welcome to the latest belated edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column attempting to catch up on and break down the news from the week that was in the Alaska political world. As always, speculating on Alaska politics is best treated as a recreational activity. You can get ahold of your humble editor at [email protected] with tips, comments, and unsolicited spelling and grammar advice.

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It’s been a year

It’s been a year since everything changed course with the pandemic. Following a weekend packed for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod, on March 11, 2020 we watched as President Trump imposed a travel ban from Europe, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they had tested positive for the virus, the NBA season came to a screeching halt and Sarah Palin was unveiled as The Bear on “The Masked Singer.” So very much has changed since then—some of it permanently—and now this week, Alaska announced it has made the vaccine widely available to everyone who wants it. We’ve gotten here together, with some pulling the weight, some struggling to hold on and some complaining about the comfort of their free ride. 

Thank you to everyone except that last group. 

Pumping the breaks

Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced Thursday that he had withdrawn—for now—his executive order to divide the Department of Health and Social Services due to “technical issues.” It’s particularly notable given that “technical difficulties” and “substantial litigation risk” have never seemed to slow the Dunleavy administration’s plans before, as evidenced by, well, just about everything from the rushed privatization of the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, anti-union actions and that whole thing with Jeff Landfield. What’s far more likely to be at play here is that the House Health and Social Services Committee, co-chaired by Reps. Tiffany Zulkosky and Liz Snyder, did its job.

Legislators on that committee started before the session and has been rolling since organization, vetting the proposal, hearing from affected groups and digging into the legal issues. All work that the administration seemed disinterested or unable to do. There’s wide agreement that the state’s largest department has its troubles but when asked to prove that this is the best way forward, the administration’s claims about broad engagement, about massive savings, about improved outcomes came crumbling down. The plan, which has an actual annual price tag of about $5 million, was increasingly difficult to defend at a time when the lack of direction for the state’s financial woes is becoming crystal clear and when it so obviously would open the state to another bruising and costly round of lawsuits. These are all questions that a Dunleavy-aligned House likely wouldn’t have had the political will to open, taking DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum’s surface-level pitch as the first and only word they needed to hear about it. 

It’s also hard to overlook the fact that most of the votes taken during Tuesday’s Health and Social Services Committee cut across caucus lines, a rare sight in the hyper-partisan Legislature, with both Republican Reps. Chris Kurka and Ken McCarty acknowledging that their colleagues had raised enough issue that at the very least they would like to keep alive the option to halt the plan before the March 21 deadline. It’s a welcome sight to see minds changed at the committee table. 

In fact, the House has continued its strong, rightly adversarial oversight role with the administration alive from the interim, which saw the Dunleavy administration refuse to participate in several hearings. The House raised questions about the bungled handling of the small business relief program, raised red flags about the state’s covid-19 safety policies for office buildings, the Alaska Pioneer Homes and prisons, issues that would eventually make headlines. It’s no wonder that some party-line Republicans have tried their best to attack and undermine House Democrats who’ve been integral behind to this critical oversight effort—at the very least trying labeling them as the Eastman of the left.

Hours after pulling the plug on the executive order, the administration was in front of the Senate Finance Committee trying to save some face, admitting that the path forward on the division isn’t entirely clear. The Dunleavy administration could rework the plan and resubmit it as another executive order or it could take a crack at legislation that would involve the Legislature more closely with the measure. Either way, Sen. Click Bishop told ‘em to take as much time as possible, including the summer and interim if they saw fit.

Reinbold-19

Guys, I’m exhausted from writing about the covid-denying extreme-right Eagle River Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold. Despite the Senate’s unprecedented vote to exclude the mask-less, test-avoiding and temperature check line-skipping Republican from the Senate after House Speaker Louise Stutes had to do their job and discipline her, she still seems to be causing plenty of in-person trouble.

While the Senate Republicans have taken the “We also kinda think covid-19 is a joke” approach with Reinbold, it’s no longer a laughing matter now that Senate President Peter Micciche’s senior aide Konrad Jackson has been in the hospital after becoming seriously ill with covid-19 following the outbreak two weeks ago.

“When we had the spike of the cases in the building, it started to worry me,” said Micciche, who has been frequently photographed attending fundraisers without a mask, told reporters. “But … when it hits someone who I’m that close to, and I hear that person who is always upbeat, always positive, always, you know, raring to go, and you hear him struggling and you realize that we’re playing with people’s lives by not taking this seriously.”

[From KTOO: Alaska Senate president has new view of COVID-19 threat after senior aide is hospitalized]

While most people are worried and sending positive thoughts Jackson’s way, Reinbold has kept up her antics that have not only continued to signal that she’s not serious about anyone’s safety but have also delayed and ensnared legislative business. Her attempt to sit in on the Senate State Affairs Committee led to a 30-minute delay, which also deprived the committee of the in-person votes needed to advance several bills. Here’s that delay condensed (blame this for eating up my Friday and delaying this column to Saturday): 

Friday’s Senate Judiciary Committee was largely the same, with Reinbold arriving in person before being told to go back to her temporary office (apparently the locks on her office door have been changed). From the video stream, she told the committee that the Legislature’s covid-19 policies are “still not very clear to me.”

Landfield was there in-person, capturing this thread that was capped off with this exchange between Reinbold and one-time Reinbold ally Sen. Shelley Hughes: 

This is getting pathetic

What’s perhaps most baffling about the whole thing with Sen. Reinbold is that nothing in the capitol’s covid-19 rules or the Senate’s enforcement actions would actually bar her from continuing to spew misinformation or complain about “mistreatment” at the hands of the Legislature, which both seem to be her primary goal. Just take Rep. Ron “I nearly beat Micciche in 2018, forever cowing moderate Republicans” Gillham for example, who’s been frequently spotted sporting his “Worn by force, not by choice” mask. Instead, Reinbold’s display has come off as increasingly unhinged and, well, pathetic:

In the end, Reinbold’s actions have gone so far as to make anything she touches toxic. There hasn’t been a heckuva lot of talk about the voter suppression measures lately or that whole politicization of the courts plan, which are both in bills driven by Reinbold’s lone remaining ally in Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Shower. His court interference bill, Senate Bill 14, got sent to the moderate Senate Finance Committee despite the Senate Judiciary Committee’s efforts to suppress the cost of the bill and the voter suppression bill, Senate Bill 39, has largely gone quiet after an initial flurry. SB 39 has two hearings set for invited testimony this upcoming week but still no public testimony.

Alaskans are more engaged and angered with Reinbold (and the Legislature’s inability to deal with her) than ever before, which would certainly help in any concerted opposition effort. Of course, a lot of that probably doesn’t matter as much when you have a pretty moderate House on the receiving end of anything passed out of the Senate. For Reinbold, this is all long past the point of legislative victories but whether there’s a long-term plan in any of this (a run for governor?) is highly debatable.

Covid-19, at least for Reinbold, has become the latest version of Senate Bill 91, a rich vein of political outrage.

The DMV

“We’re not going to impose those cuts if you’re not thrilled with them.”

That’s what Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka told the House Finance Committee this week when asked about the administration’s largely unpopular plan to shutter several profitable Department of Motor Vehicles offices in smaller road-system communities and have private companies, one of which is closely connected to DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum’s family, come in and charge people as much as twice as much for the services they are already receiving. The whole plan only saves about a half-million dollars from and agency that returns tens of millions of dollars to the state treasury, “What’s up with that?” said Republican Rep. George Rauscher during a subcommittee hearing this week. It should also be noted that during a hearing with the Senate, Tshibaka also explained the reason for targeting the smaller communities is because they were both profitable and less likely to mount stiff political opposition. What is up with that, indeed.

Tshibaka’s sudden noncommittal approach to the whole thing is, like the shift on the division of the Department of Health and Social Services, probably a recognition that there’s mounting bipartisan opposition to what’s increasingly looking like a grift intended that will, at best, cost Alaskans in the affected communities time and money. Still, it’s best for legislators to view this claim with skepticism given the administration can still bring the weighty veto hammer down on the program (Tshibaka is, after all, already working with private companies to come into these targeted communities). That’s why on Friday afternoon, Dunleavy-skeptical Reps. Zack Fields and Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins announced that they’ll be be introducing a bill “aimed at preventing negative consequences for Alaskans in each of the communities facing potential impacts.”

In a prepared statement accompanying the announcement, Kreiss-Tomkins offered a line that can probably apply to just about any of the plans put forward by the Dunleavy team: “The Department of Administration should hit pause on their privatization and price hike plan until there is adequate opportunity for oversight.”

Somethings missing here

The House Republicans released their shared principles statement this week, which eagle-eyed readers noticed was missing something: The dividend. “We believe in governance that fits Alaska. We will fight for a state government that operates transparently, remains accountable to the people, acts with integrity, and operates on a responsible budget that does not inhibit economic growth. This includes preserving our permanent fund for future generations, instituting a spending limit, and opposing a statewide income tax.”

That kinda sounds like the plan that’s led to year-after-year reductions to the dividend, guys.

State of the Race: Anchorage

There’s an election on less than a month away in Anchorage, where the city’s moderate and progressives will go up against the extreme-right dregs of the Save Anchorage group. On the progressive side, Anchorage Assemblymember Forrest Dunbar is leading with former city manager Bill Falsey picking off some support after a reasonably strong policy-focused showing in recent forums. On the conservative side, extreme-right covid-denying Dave Bronson is the presumptive front-runner giving little air for the slightly less conservative Mike Robbins and the practically progressive by comparison Bill Evans.

We’ve got a peek at some numbers from a poll conducted earlier this month that puts the top-line numbers as follows: Dunbar 22%, Bronson 15%, Robbins 8%, Falsey 6%, Evans 6%, Martinez 2%, Herndon 1% and a whopping 41% undecided. Dunbar (who didn’t provide us these numbers) happens leads in nearly every metric except for political affiliation we saw in the poll. At this point, he’s a likely a lock to head to the run-off election.

Democrats and independents lean heavily toward the progressive side of the ticket while Bronson and Robbins are much closer when it comes to support of Republicans voters, which may give Robbins a shot at eking out a victory over Bronson to get a place in the primary. What was particularly interesting out of the polling was the strong support Robbins garners from the Alaska Native vote. According to this poll, he’s getting about 19% of voters from this group while Dunbar gets 22%.

Looking at fundraising numbers, here’s the latest top-level numbers from the latest report that covers the Feb. 2 through March 5 fundraising period with the obvious APOC errors corrected.

NameTotal income2/2-3/5 incomeTotal Spend+DebtsCash on-hand
Forrest Dunbar$312,212.44$252,216.43$158,369.13$102,775.23
Mike Robbins$245,471.27$210,057.50$60,884.68$81,392.93
David W Bronson$224,201.41$162,481.80$48,568.03$152,176.61
Bill Falsey$130,184.01$106,285.23$61,409.41$37,660.92
Bill Evans$119,275.45$98,480.00$21,064.87$52,193.86
George Martinez$12,594.42$60,085.00$33,852.03$38,827.39
Source: APOC reports cleaned up by Matt Buxton/TMS

Recall denied

The recall campaign targeting Assemblymember and Anchorage mayoral candidate Forrest Dunbar has been denied by the city for failing to meet the legal standards of a recall. I know, huh, what recall? There are so many it’s hard to keep track at this point but last month, a conservative group filed a recall petition against Dunbar arguing that an email exchange between him and Assemblymember Christopher Constant was evidence that Dunbar had illegally coerced testimony from an individual in support of the city’s plans to address homelessness in the city. According to the petition language, the alleged proof came in an email exchange where Dunbar wrote “looks like our shame/prodding campaign worked!” 

The attempted recall and the allegations have been popular among extreme-right circles who’ve opposed the city’s latest efforts to address homelessness and who oppose Dunbar’s mayoral candidacy. The decision and analysis by the Anchorage Municipal Clerk and Anchorage attorney basically approach the recall question as follows: If we assume the claims are true would it be a violation of law? In this case, they found that basically shame and or prodding campaigns by elected officials is a constitutionally protected action and doesn’t amount to coercion under Alaska laws, which would require a threat of physical injury or withholding official action among other criteria.

“In this instance, petitioners have provided an email exchange as the basis for their allegation of coercion,” explains the city’s legal memo on the recall. “The emails, however, do not include any suggestion that Assembly Member Dunbar compelled anyone to act or refrain from acting in the face of a demand from Dunbar that if Dunbar’s demand was not complied with, he would inflict physical injury or commit some other illegal act on someone. … There is no mention of testimony, threats, consequences, or even any communication from Assembly Member Dunbar to Mr. Poindexter at all. The emails are not a sufficient basis for finding that Assembly Member Dunbar violated Alaska law.”

Of course, this is just the first step in the recall process and could be appealed to the courts. We’re all (including the recall efforts targeting Jamie Allard and Rep. Kelly Merrick) are really waiting on the final order from the Alaska Supreme Court on the Recall Dunleavy campaign, which ought to serve as the latest guidance on how to handle such cases.

Interim president Valerie Davidson

On Friday afternoon, Alaska Pacific University President and former Lt. Gov. Valerie Davidson was named the interim president of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. She’s taking over for Andy Teuber, who’s presumed dead following his resignation from the position after allegations of manipulating and sexually abusing an employee. Davidson formerly served as the commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services under former Gov. Bill Walker and her arrival was widely welcomed on Friday afternoon, getting responses like “Oh, right, she’s the right pick right now.”

“I am incredibly honored to serve both our workforce and our Alaska Native people across the state in this role,” said Davidson in a prepared statement. “I am focused on continuing to advance the efforts already underway to lead our staff through the challenging situations that have presented themselves in the last few weeks. Even more important than those immediate needs, I am excited to cultivate an inclusive culture throughout the Consortium that highlights ANTHC’s commitment to excellence for its people and the innovative services we provide.” 

And with that, have a nice weekend y’all.

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