Friday in the Sun (March 26): The Slouching Towards Adjournment edition

Friday in the Sun is here

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.

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’ve probably 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.

A personal edge

After an all-day amendment session on Thursday, the House has finally passed legislation authorizing an extension/renewal of the state’s disaster declaration… nearly two months after it expired and when Gov. Mike Dunleavy says he doesn’t need it anymore. The final vote on House Bill 76 was 22-15 with just minority Republican Rep. Bart LeBon crossing the caucus line to support the bill. It still needs to go to through the Senate, where the Republican majority seems to be more skeptical about the need to call it a disaster and seems to be on the governor’s side of a more pared back bill. Time is going to be of the essence here because the state needs authority to receive boosted assistance for food stamps. DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum said they’ll be able to receive the funds if the measure is passed by April 15 but admitted that the payments to families could be delayed by weeks if that’s the case.

“While you may hear arguments that if we don’t act by April 1, SNAP beneficiaries will be able to receive their emergency allotment retroactively, it won’t feed a malnutirous child who is hungry now,” said Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, the Bethel Democrat who along with Rep. Liz Snyder helped revive the legislation, during the floor debate.

After a lengthy amendment processes in the committees and on the floor, the legislation contains several additional changes: A broad immunity protection for businesses against covid-19 liability, an explicit opposition to forced vaccines (which, again, has never been on the table) and language that explicitly says none of the money can be used for abortions. That final amendment was made on the House floor, garnering support from Majority Coalition Reps. Kelly Merrick, Chris Tuck and Josiah Patkotak.

The debate on the floor was a pretty stark display of just how divided Alaskans are when it comes to covid-19. While Republicans stressed individual responsibility and choosing whatever risk you’re comfortable with—with a dash of anti-homeless thrown in for good measure—others argued that the legislation represents a collective responsibility we have for each other to tolerate the inconvenient and discomfort for those individuals and communities most at risk. Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, put it well, adding that the pandemic and loss of life is deeply personal to many Alaskans.  

“This once in a lifetime pandemic has a personal edge for me as well. I often think back to a young Alaska Native girl over 100 years ago or so who was orphaned by the great Spanish Flu. And that young Alaska Native girl was my grandmother. In my home region of Bristol Bay, the pandemic of 2020 has held a very personal nature to it. A lot of us have relatives that we can look back into time and know that we lost when the last worldwide pandemic reared its ugly head. So, maybe that gives me a more personal connection to what’s going on today, and I’ll fully admit that,” he said, noting that he’s done a lot to try to understand the divergent attitudes on the virus. “Thank goodness there is light at the end of the tunnel, but I’ve also observed that through all those hundreds of years and all these dark periods in the history of mankind, human nature has stubbornly persisted. Every time, looking back into the history and probably going forward as well, whenever we have an event like a pandemic, epidemic or whatever it might be that the intersect of individual freedoms on one side and the public health and the protective measures that come with it clash and collide. I heard that repeatedly on the floor today. For better or worse, here we are. This bill to me is very important, it’s very personal and I also think it’s very critical.”

Side note: In some ways, the process on House Bill 76 ought to serve as a preview for what the budget will eventually look like. A smattering of crossover votes on key issues, several reminders to not impugn the motives of other legislators and uncertainty over just what’ll happen when it reaches the other chamber and the governor.

The budget

This week saw most of the House budget subcommittees wrap up their work. As much as I’d like to try, I just don’t have the capacity to track everything down that happened, but here’s what crossed my radar:

  • The subcommittee on the Department of Administration nixed Gov. Mike Dunleavy/Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka’s proposal to close six DMV offices. While there was some Republican support for axing the Eagle River office, everyone voted to turn down the proposal to close the Haines, Homer, Tok, Delta Junction and Valdez offices.
  • The same committee also voted along caucus lines to ax the Department of Administration’s analytics team, a group set up by executive order without legislative approval, that has done nothing except maybe identify some Medicaid fraud. At least they think so.
  • The Department of Law subcommittee slapped down a bunch of Dunleavy’s budget proposals, including one that would have charged municipalities for prosecuting misdemeanors. This one got widespread support to nix because it’d be such a dramatic change in policy while also only seeming to save the state about $1.5 million.
  • In that same committee, Rep. Andy Josephson led the effort to reject several proposals to undo the Legislature’s previous actions that put the clamps on the extent to which the Department of Law can go down run former Attorney General Kevin Clarkson’s anti-union lawsuits (which have already cost the state nearly $200,000 in judgements). They also cut the Department of Law’s civil division by $200,000 in response to the amount that’s been spent on said anti-union lawsuit.
  • The Department of Health and Social Services budget probably has a bunch of interesting stuff going on in it, but the one item that came across my radar was that the committee rejected the administration’s request to move Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink’s office into the commissioner’s office, which I’m sure was just a totally innocent maneuver.

While all of these smaller budget discussions are interesting and worthwhile, the bigger developing question on the budget (well, other than the PFD, the deficit and new revenue) is just what will and what can happen with impending influx of stimulus cash from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. The Alaska government will be on the receiving end of more than $1 billion in direct cash with many more hundreds of millions flowing in through different avenues. There’s really very few answers about any of it right now because the initial treasury guidance is still more than a month and a half away (it’s due on May 10 or Day 112 of the legislative session).

As Legislative Finance Division Director Alexei Painter explained to the Senate Finance Committee this morning, the major issue here is the shifting federal guidance. The Legislature can take a prescriptive approach detailing how those funds are to be spent, but if something changes on the federal end that may require the Legislature to come back and update its budget. It can give Dunleavy flexibility on how to spend those dollars, but then that gets into the issue of the Legislature handing off its powers of appropriation.

“The more narrowly we appropriate the funds, the more difficult it will be to get out of here in 121 days and the more likely it is that a special session is needed to reallocate funds if the guidance changes,” he said.

Revenues?

And as for the revenue question, the Legislature also faces the political risks of not only passing a tax but having that tax vetoed by Dunleavy, giving him precisely the kind of platform he’d like heading into the 2022 election. “What’s the point?” said one particularly over-it politico explained.

Taking a break

Guys, session has been so busy that legislators deserve a long weekend. They deserve it! Take a gander at next week’s schedule and it sure looks like Senate is planning on heading home for Easter weekend a few days early. Both the Thursday and Friday schedules have been cleared, and we’ve heard that they don’t plan to get back to things until the following Tuesday. I don’t necessarily hold it against them because, after all, things look pretty miserable down there.

No word if the House would follow suit, but we wouldn’t be entirely surprised.

GavelClassic

Adjust your #GavelClassic adjournment guesses accordingly. The deadline to lock in is midnight TONIGHT! You can submit your prognostication here: The Gavel Classic Guess Form.

The University of Alaska

Another interesting tidbit from the Senate Finance Committee hearing this morning is that the federal funding for the university system has a requirement for the state to have a maintenance of effort, meaning the state has to fund the university at a certain level to qualify for the funds. Painter noted that this’ll likely run into the last round of cuts contained in the compact between the governor and the Board of Regents. The Legislature has already been chafed by the whole agreement and has previously offered funding above the compact to the university in its budget (for it to be vetoed by Dunleavy). Just what’ll happen moving forward isn’t entirely clear as it seems that the federal relief money is raising more questions than answers right now.

In university news, one of the long-running problems in the University of Alaska budget that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention is the very low amount of giving to the university foundation. They’re hoping to fix that with a new For Alaska campaign, which had an honestly pretty good launch this week (and that’s by my “You can’t make me watch virtual launches!” standard).

#NotAllCarSalesmen

In addition to the disaster declaration bill, the House this week passed Rep. Matt Claman’s House Bill 36 deals with shady car dealers in an attempt to better protect customers. It’s the kind of legislation that’d typically would go unremarked upon if not for the admission from Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton, had been scammed by such a car dealer.

“I was one of those who was taken by a car salesman,” he said. “I’m not saying all car salesmen are the same, but what I’m saying is what happened was a big problem before we even drove it off the lot. They had my check and had misrepresented a whole lotta stuff. When the police came, (!!!) they basically told me and my wife that the only recourse we had was to go to court and hire a lawyer.”

Also, it’s probably worth noting that Big Lake Republican Rep. Mike McCabe opposed the bill because his whole family works in car sales and that, basically, if you get scammed then tough sledding, bud.

Shower Power

And here’s an underappreciated scene from the Senate State Affairs Committee meeting this week (still no word on when/if his new voter suppression bill will be out).

‘Sen. Reinbold, understood.’

That was Attorney General-nominee Treg Taylor’s blunt response after Sen. Lora Reinbold, Q-Eagle River, asked/demanded that he get the governor to retract his letter scorching the facts-challenged legislator for claiming the state had done too much on the covid-19 pandemic. It was another head-turning hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee that included a lot of questions inspired by whatever constitutional fan fiction that Reinbold has been reading during the pandemic. Also, there was this gem of a line:

“I just thought a point of interest, my church had to have face coverings on, I guess. It was ridiculous in my mind, you know, because it violated religious liberties, so I had a real problem with that,” Reinbold said. “So, I left the church actually over that.”

A brewing fight over education

The Senate Education Committee did something that I thought far-right Senate Republicans abhor: Introduced a committee bill without the support of everyone on the committee (Are you saying that all the outrage over other times that literally everyone has done this was performative?!?). This time it’s in the form of a right-wing take on improving education that seems to borrow from Sen. Tom Begich and Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s Alaska Reads Act that got some traction last year while simultaneously missing the point of the whole thing. Riddled with drafting errors, the bill got a hearing this morning where Sen. Begich blasted the bill left and right. Chief of his concerns is that this seems to be cobbled together without any of the evidence or support that went into the Alaska Reads Act (which, for the record, had its skeptics, too).

The committee didn’t get particularly far into the bill hearing, so it’s hard to really suss out too much of what the new legislation does and what it doesn’t do at this point. It seems, though, that Begich is prepared to put up a fight. Given that education policy is such a politically loaded issue, it’s frankly odd to ditch whatever momentum there was behind the bipartisan plan put together by Begich and Dunleavy. It also, at this point, doesn’t give it much of a chance of success in the House.

The esteemed former representative from Downtown Anchorage

Windmills work in the cold

It’s never too late to clown on Texas’ right-wing politicians.

Have a nice weekend, y’all.

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