Saturday in the Sun (March 20): The Coin Flip Caucus edition

Friday in the Sun is here

Welcome to the latest belated version of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column attempting to catch up and break down the political news of the week. As always, speculating on the machinations of the Alaska political system is best treated as a recreational activity.

Also, hey, if you’re a subscriber to the The Midnight Sun Memo (and, if not, why?!? It’s so easy to sign up!) you may have noticed the increasing overlap between this column and the newsletter. Here’s a handy way to jump past the reheated newsletter to the new and/or fleshed out stuff for anyone who’s already done the reading: Too long; already read.

This may take a while

With a late start for the House, ongoing issues with covid-19 and little direction on the monumental decisions on the budget, on the dividend and on the state’s structural deficit, it’d be a tall order for things to all be wrapped up by the Alaska Constitution’s 121-day session by May 19 (and the 90-day session was never even seriously considered as a possibility). Also, while writing up this column I noticed this change to the Legislature’s homepage this morning:

On the budget front, the state did get some good news this week with a revised spring revenue forecast that anticipates the state will receive about $460 million more than expected from oil taxes in the upcoming fiscal year. It also paints a somewhat better picture for the state’s corporate income taxes, which were looking to potentially dip into the negative territory with how tax provisions in the federal CARES Act interacted with state law. It doesn’t erase the state’s deficit—especially the deficit it’d take to pay out Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed mega dividends (several billions of dollars), which he is standing by despite the payout of the federal stimulus—and, according to a report by the Anchorage Daily News, Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka and co-chairman of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee said the money “doesn’t bring in more opportunities for additional expenditures or anything like that,” but “it takes a little bit of pressure off.” Dang! I was hoping for some more tennis courts! 

The two biggest questions when it comes to state spending will be the size of the dividend balanced against the overdraws from the Alaska Permanent Fund’s earnings reserve account. While there’s more support for a boosted payout following last year’s elections, there’s also a growing understanding of just what such overdraws will mean for the future of the Alaska Permanent Fund (namely, bigger future deficits). At the House Coalition’s news conference on Thursday, House Speaker Louise Stutes, Majority Leader Chris Tuck and House Finance Committee co-chair Rep. Neal Foster all confirmed that they didn’t support overdrawing the Alaska Permanent Fund with Tuck going so far as to say the American Rescue Plan’s stimulus relieves the pressure for boosted cash payments to Alaskans. Whether that will actually play out once things reach the House floor is anyone’s guess and House leadership said they’re still working things out internally and have yet to decide on a specific direction at this point.

Foster also brought up a point I flagged in the Monday edition of the newsletter: the pending arrival of more than $1 billion in cash payments to the state (which doesn’t include payments to local governments, tribes and schools). He noted that the timing of that money and the accompanying federal guidance on how it can be spent will go a long way in determining when session gets done. The Legislature ceded much of its spending authority to the Dunleavy administration last year in its rush to get out of the way of the covid-19 pandemic, a point of bipartisan criticism throughout the interim and into this session. 

“There’s been a lot of interest from at least the folks on the House side to have the ability to direct where that money goes as opposed to the governor,” he said, but acknowledged that if that can’t get done in the 131 days (the 121-day session plus the 10-day extension allowed by the constitution) that they’d face the hurdle of calling themselves into a special session. If they don’t, they could be stuck once again in the quagmire of the RPL process that would allow Gov. Mike Dunleavy to largely direct how more than $1 billion could be spent. Either way, Foster and leadership agreed that the influx of federal dollars shouldn’t be reason to for the Legislature to take the easy way out once again this year. 

“Do we want to look at additional revenue? Do we want to look at a spending cap? Right now, we don’t know how much we can use to offset the state budget,” Foster said. “This is one-time money and, sure, it might last two or three years but at some point that’s going to run out and we still have the tough decisions before us and it’s just going to make our budget look bigger if we use that money to offset the budget without a way to continue that into the future.”

That’s all a massive ask and that’s before we get into the increasingly real problems created by covid-19 and the increasingly dramatic theatrics of covid-denying legislators. While as much as half the building’s personnel has received at least the first dose of the covid-19 vaccine, it’s not near enough to reach the herd immunity needed to begin relaxing health precautions (the answer is, according to LAA Director Jessica Geary “Something along the lines of we don’t know at this time”). The Legislature saw several new cases this week with accompanying quarantines for close contacts that plenty of folks, including two legislators, stay home. This sort of stuff, as we’ve seen, can get quickly out of hand. The announcement that the Idaho Legislature is closing up shop for nearly three weeks due to an outbreak just as they had expected to wrap up ought to serve as a warning (there, eight of 105 legislators have contracted the virus this year). 

And then there’s the theatrics of it all. Sen. Lora Reinbold’s increasingly tired antics have delayed hearings in both the Senate and House for combined hours at this point. On Friday, Wasilla Republican Rep. Christopher Kurka took a page out of Reinbold’s book and brought the House floor session to a standstill amid a dispute over his stupid “Government mandated muzzle” mask, which was a violation of the Legislature’s requirements for professional attire on the floor. Earlier this week, Kurka left the House floor rather than wear a mask after giving a speech where he suggested the masking policy is simply a political ploy and that the Legislature ought to just give up on trying to limit the spread of the virus. (Kurka is also the former head of Alaska Right to Life, an extreme-right Rep. David Eastman-affiliated group that was so extreme that it found itself at odds with Jim Minnery and company.) The Juneau Empire has a good rundown of everything that happened. The House, which had been set to take up a Senate bill allowing remote meetings for some boards and corporations, met Saturday to finish up business.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Liz Snyder was not having it.

The Big Lie, blockchain voting and the Domino’s Pizza Tracker

Sen. Mike Shower’s voter reform/suppression bill has pretty much gone silent after grabbing everyone’s attention at the start of the session. We’re still waiting on a rewrite of the bill, which has apparently been in the works for a couple weeks now, so there’s not a lot new to report on that end and we still don’t have a set date for public testimony. Instead, what we got on Tuesday was a hearing that was pitching a voting system that’s more complicated, less transparent and less accessible while also seemingly failing to answer any of the problems that Sen. Shower and company believe were raised in the 2020 election. The committee heard from Christopher Miller, a “distinguished solution specialist” with technology company Oracle, about the panoply of high-tech servers and protocols that would presumably make voting a whole lot more secure. It mostly got attention for this slide in particular:

“What I’d like to do is really talk about the equivalent of giving the voters of Alaska their own pizza tracker for votes,” Miller said. “If we could do it for pizza, we could do it here.” 

Yes, because pizza delivery system security is what we want for voting. 

Of the many things that Shower’s bill (at least the version that’s publicly available) seeks to do is institute a chain of custody system for Alaska’s elections—arguing that voters should know where there ballot is at all times—which would also notably would bar people from possessing and delivering more than one other person’s ballot (meaning you’d have to make multiple trips if you wanted to, say, deliver your elderly parents’ ballots for them). Hence the tracker that would log when you voted, how you voted, where your ballot is and when it’s counted (Also seems like a good opportunity to create a ballot curing process to allow folks to fix errors in already-sent in ballots, but such efforts have been staunchly opposed by Republicans so I’m not holding my breath).

What was more alarming is all the other add-ons proposed by Miller. Along with a Domino’s Tracker-style vote system, Miller suggested implementing two-factor authentication when voting (where he referenced smash-hit battle royale game “Fortnite”) that would require people to verify their identity through a digital means such as a text message, email or app as well as a blockchain system that’s typically mentioned in the same breath as online voting and bitcoin. Miller made a lot of claims about how secure all of this would be, how it’d be impervious to Outside actors and how the blockchain system—a complex digital ledger that would keep track of how everyone voted while also relying on a encryption system that would keep the identity of who’s casting those votes secret—would provide, as Miller put it, “a single source of truth.” At least in theory.

The problem with all of it is despite Miller’s claims that such infrastructure is completely infallible—that it can never be hacked and can never undermined by a bad actor—all these new systems create new ways to attack and undermine the election system. Attacks could, for example, block or slowdown internet access to the voting system during the final hours of voting. It’s also important to note that the weakest point in any system is and will forever be the human operators. Social engineering—a fancy word for hacking people with lies and misrepresentations—is still one of the most sure-fire ways to skirt just about any kind of cybersecurity system.

An MIT research paper highlighted by KTOO reporter Andrew Kitchenman lays out the problems with Internet voting and blockchain voting in succinct detail: “While current election systems are far from perfect, Internet- and blockchain-based voting would greatly increase the risk of undetectable, nation-scale election failures. … Given the current state of computer security, any turnout increase derived from with Internet- or blockchain-based voting would come at the cost of losing meaningful assurance that votes have been counted as they were cast, and not undetectably altered or discarded. This state of affairs will continue as long as standard tactics such as malware, zero days, and denial-of-service attacks continue to be effective.”

And that’s not to mention the problems this would create with Alaska’s spotty internet connectivity and unequal access to the smartphone devices that’d be necessary to pull all of this off. I’ve talked with a few folks who understand blockchain better than I and their reactions are pretty telling: “Man, WTF? God, people are so dumb over blockchain. It’s because they know it’s inefficient and slow and would 100% be a pain for people voting.” And from another, “It is fucking terrible.” 

As Shower would claim, the whole bill is driven by the desire to “restore trust in the elections” but what exactly is trustable about a new system relying on technology that few of us—and, critically, few in the Division of Elections—would be able to understand and vet? At the hearing, Shower seemed eager to outsource Alaska’s voting security system to a private company while extreme-right Sen. Lora Reinbold lauded the presentation. How exactly is an encrypted system on a private server better than filled-in ovals on hard paper ballots? 

The answer is, of course, that none of this has truly been about restoring trust in the election system, where it bears repeating that there has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud. None of it has been about making it easier to vote. Shower’s concern over the election system fits right in with the conservative mass effort to pass laws making it more difficult for people—particularly people they believe are more likely to vote for progressive candidates (people of color)—to cast votes with confidence.

And while all of this is and should be alarming, it’s critical to remember that Sens. Shower and Reinbold are just two of the 60 legislators in the building. Any legislation they dream up faces a steep hurdle of the more-moderate Senate (which may not be thrilled to see whatever price tag Shower’s bill ultimately has) as well as the moderate House where such legislation would be landing in committees run by Democrats. 

If Sen. Shower and company were truly interested in restoring faith in elections, they could start by being honest about what did and didn’t happen in the 2020 elections.

Selective reading

Folks are starting to notice that the public testimony posted to the Senate State Affairs (chaired by Shower) and the Senate Judiciary (chaired by Reinbold) committees seem to conveniently paint the picture of near-unilateral support for their extreme-right bills. I’m sure it’s just coincidence and that bills meddling with elections and the courts are just as broadly popular as Shower, Reinbold and company claim they are! (People have been saying that these perfect are very perfect, I hear!) I’m also sure that it’s just coincidence that we keep hearing from opponents that their letters and emails opposing various bills aren’t appearing online alongside the bill documents.

It’s not like these legislators have a habit of clamping their hands over their ears and yelling wildly wrong things about what’s contained in the Constitution… oh wait.

(Ok, that’s just kinda funny.)

Also, hey, public officials! Stop deleting comments and stop blocking people! For as much as y’all claim to LOVE the Constitution, y’all really need to finish reading the First Amendment. You know, the part about being able to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances” or about how public comments are public forums and by deleting comments you are quite literally censoring speech! And we’re talking real censorship here, not the “Oh, no, a private citizen said they don’t it when I publicly defend Nazis. I’m being censored!” kind of censorship.

Boiling point

It’s hard to overstate just how increasingly angry and frustrated everyone in the building is getting with the extreme-right anti-masking folks. What’s particularly infuriating about the whole thing is just how performative it all is. Kurka’s stunt on the House floor on Friday was clearly an attempt to get House Speaker Louise Stutes to kick him off the House floor, but they wouldn’t play along and canceled the Friday session. The hour of video preceding the floor session doesn’t look like it’s in the Gavel Alaska archives, but you can see Reps. Laddie Shaw and George Rauscher (of all people) chewing Kurka out while the whole thing was brewing. Kurka later released a childish statement on his own (always notable when a press release goes out without the support of the caucus’ press office) where he said he believes masks are a political statement and therefore he should be able to bring political displays onto the House floor. It’s exhausting.

While there’s been… differing opinions on covid-19 in the Legislature, the general thinking seems to be, “Look, none of us love what’s going on but we also don’t want to risk it, either, so let’s all collectively be uncomfortable and get through this together.” For folks like Reinbold and Kurka to be openly flouting it for political points when there are several people in the Legislature who’ve lost friends and family to covid-19 is infuriating. I’ve talked with a few Republican legislators who’ve had unprintable—even by my anonymous standards—things to say about these folks. Some really don’t know what Reinbold and Kurka are even talking about most of the time.

I think what a lot of them don’t really understand is that folks like Reinbold and Kurka really are off in the QAnon weeds. While they may not be full adherents to the whacko conspiracy, Reinbold has sure been parroting a lot of it on her Facebook (including a post calling the Pope a “globalist”). And, let’s be honest, if you really thought that there was a secretive cabal of blood-drinking celebrities and politicians who’re trying to make everyone easier to control with masks, microchip-implanted vaccines and mask conditioning in the form of Fox’s “Masked Singer” and “Masked Dancer” then I guess I’d think I’d also feel pretty alarmed and unhinged, too. But that’s not the case. There’s no widespread secret plot to change the elections (well, other than gerrymandering, voter suppression laws, voter intimidation, fake news and rampant disinformation that spreads with the help of outrage-inducing social media algorithms). Donald Trump is not secretly still president, Joe Biden is in fact a flesh-and-bones old man.

Some of these folks may be performative, some may be true believers. Either way it’s a problem that we really shouldn’t be ignoring. When Republicans embraced this far right with some varying take on “what’s the risk in humoring them?” in the rush to tap into the politically valuable outrage, I think a lot thought that the movement would stay obedient. But now the tiger is loose and it thinks that the pope is out drinking childrens’ blood.  

This sucks

The Coin Flip Caucus

I thought I’d be able to get up and quickly knock out this column but, alas, the House had to meet up this morning thanks to Rep. Kurka in order to pass an uncontroversial bill allowing boards and commissions to meet remotely. They also had to take up the adoption of the Legislature’s Uniform Rules, which just got silly. Rep. David Eastman led the charge on offering several amendments to the uniform rules, including one that would give the public the same access to the capitol as legislators, and all were roundly rejected. What was particularly eye-catching, though, was an amendment by Rep. Ben Carpenter that would decide who’s House Speaker with a coin flip in the event that it’s tied after 15 days into session. Yep. A coin flip.

While, yes, Alaska’s tied elections are decided by coin flips, hinging the organization for a chamber on a coin flip is just a terrible idea. Rep. Matt Claman said deciding such significant things like the organization of a chamber through a game of chance is deeply inappropriate. (I’d wonder why not move to a secret ballot? But then again, a coin flip is probably the closest Reps. Carpenter and Eastman will get to having their preferred House Speaker.)

The amendment failed on a 23-9 margin.

But the adoption of the uniform rules ultimately failed on a 26-6 vote. It needed 27.

The proper way to do a birthday special order

In the time that it took the House to sort out its Kurka problems on Friday, the Senate got through its entire floor calendar including a masterclass in how to give an appropriately teasing special order from Sen. Jesse Kiehl for Sen. Scott Kawasaki’s 46th birthday. Happy Birthday, Scott!

And, as always, have a nice weekend y’all.

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1 Comment on "Saturday in the Sun (March 20): The Coin Flip Caucus edition"

  1. Marlin Savage | March 21, 2021 at 10:50 am | Reply

    “There’s no widespread secret plot to change the elections”

    No secret that Soros has spent Hundreds of Millions to influence elections….

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