Friday in the Sun (April 2): The Vaccine Hangover edition

Friday in the Sun is here

Welcome to the latest edition of Friday in the Sun, which is gonna be a short one of reheated newsletter content. The second dose of the covid-19 vaccine is no joke. I’m feeling crummy, but then again I also feel crummy after flu shots, reading the comments and thinking about all the texts, emails and DMs I haven’t responded to.

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.

Anchorage’s election is as boring as it is consequential 

With the Alaska Legislature taking an early and long weekend, I wanted to switch gears to Anchorage’s pending election because, hey, there’s an election underway and it’s really important! It’s just kind of, well, boring. 

Before you object, let me explain myself (and if it’s not convincing, then let’s just blame it on the vaccine hangover fog that I’m racing against to get this newsletter out). For simplicity’s sake, I’m just going to be focusing in on the mayoral race (sorry Anchorage School Board and 11 propositions, maybe next time) where, yes, we have a ton of candidates vying for what’ll almost certainly be a May 11 run-off election. There are a lot of options—fifteen candidates, fifteen!—but are there, really?

Sure, there are a lot of differences between each candidate, but the underlying choice on this ballot is stark: Either the city continues to chug along the bumpy road to recovery or yanks the wheel to the right, hard.

By all accounts, the frontrunners are progressive candidate Forrest Dunbar and far-right candidate Dave Bronson, but swap in one of the different flavors of progressive or conservative and the decision is largely the same without a heckuva lot of nuance in between. How’d we get here? 

The shift to the far-right hasn’t helped Anchorage conservatives, who’ve been handed defeat after defeat on the Assembly and in the mayor’s office for several cycles in a row. And with the advent of Facebook groups that cater to the most extreme impulses, things aren’t exactly getting better (though there’s certainly some debate as to just how authentic and widespread this movement is). If the right could stand up candidates with more mainstream appeal—oh, say, Bill Evans, for example—I think I’d actually give them the advantage in this election cycle, capitalizing on the exhaustion of the pandemic with that conservative “I’m a Business Guy, guys!” thing. Instead, their leading candidate is Dave Bronson, a figure who’s been lurking around extreme-right politics for decades and more recently been showing how tough a guy he is by packing people into mask-free fundraisers like sardines. And the seeming runner-up is Mike Robbins, who also labels himself as a businessman (with a shady business past, as you do). 

And on the progressive side, you have frontrunner Forrest Dunbar, very competent Bill “Hey, He’d Make a Good City Manager, Huh?” Falsey and George “Can’t We All Get Along” Martinez. While the far-right would seek to paint this crew (Dunbar particularly) as radical leftists, those who have been paying attention to the assembly’s actual policies and not just the anti-masking theatrics (which have started to subside, by the way) might see something else. Anchorage is not exactly defunding the cops any time soon. 

The biggest material complaint, if there is one, is the city’s handling of the pandemic and that’s been blunted with the vaccine’s arrival and the elimination of pretty much any limitations on businesses or gatherings, and it didn’t take the election of a covid denier to do it. 

This election—and most elections, for that matter—is a case for the reforms contained in Ballot Measure 2. Open primaries and ranked choice voting are intended to make room for the middle and away from the hyper-partisan primaries that have driven the right further and further to the extremes. How would this race look if voters could feel more comfortable voting for candidates in the middle instead of against candidates on the extremes? The Bills—Bill Evans and maybe even Bill Falsey—would have more room to operate here. Bill Evans and Forrest Dunbar in the run-off? That’s a race that might have more room for nuance. 

After an incredibly divisive election, months of bad-faith arguments about election security and the pandemic, I can see how it’s hard to be particularly enthusiastic about the election, a fact that seems to be evidenced by the low turnout so far. 

But the thing is, this is an enormously consequential vote. It’s a decision that will decide the city’s handling of crime, handling of criminal justice, handling of homelessness and handling of the ongoing pandemic recovery. Will the city see those efforts through or take a hard turn off the ledge? 

So as boring as voting in this election may be, please, go do it.

Alright, I gotta go fill out my ballot… just gotta figure out what these dang props do.

A word of warning on the 2020 election

After nearly a decade of reporting in Alaska, I still need to remind myself that not everyone out there can or wants to navigate a campaign finance report, track bills, watch hours and hours of legislative hearings and pack away every tidbit of information for years and years. At times, I find myself assuming that if it’s in a public document or in a public hearing that I know about, then everyone knows about it. Right?!? Yeah, not even close to reality. And even if whatever inside issue gets written about, let’s be honest that readership of deeply wonky articles and blog posts is just, well, never all that great. It’s with all that in mind that I think it’s important to consider the launch of now-former Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka’s campaign against U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

As she announced her long-rumored bid on Monday, I’m sure just about every wonky “scandal” of the past two-and-a-half years—the questionable contracts, the anti-union lawsuit, the disinterest in helping rural Alaska with REAL ID, the DMV closures and the seemingly trumped up efficiencies in state government—pinged through many people’s minds with some variation of “She really thinks she can win with a record like that?” Well, that’s the kind of thinking that gets someone like Mike Dunleavy—who had about as dismal of a legislative record to his name as anyone—into the governor’s office (I know I’m simplifying here, but I’m not about ready to relitigate that election). That kind of approach to politics—the “if we just let the voters know in excruciating and painstakingly fact-checked detail just how unqualified this person is, we’re sure they’ll make the right choice”—is deeply outdated, if it was ever current in the first place. 

As much as we don’t like to admit it, the weaponization of disinformation and misinformation is incredibly powerful and more sophisticated than ever. And while we’ve focused a lot on the world of open conspiracists like Sen. Lora Reinbold, it doesn’t take that much polish to remove the edges and make it more palatable. As was reported by Politico, Tshibaka has already brought on several key Trumpworld figures—former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien, deputy campaign manager Justin Clark and battleground states director Nick Trainer are on as advisers—for her run to help polish and hone her 2022 campaign.

Let’s also not forget that 2022 will be an unprecedented election under a completely new system that will send four candidates from the open primary to a ranked choice general election… despite Tshibaka’s hope, from this since-deleted Facebook post, that the Big Lie would give Alaska the tools to overturn the measure’s passage.

And while stuff like that may be disqualifying for some, most won’t know about it and many more will agree with the sentiment. The biggest knock against Tshibaka’s candidacy at this point, perhaps surprisingly to nerds for Alaska civics, is her lack of name recognition. Just as the whole DMV, anti-union and REAL ID issues are inside baseball, so too are her efforts to “innovate” and find efficiencies in state government. The problem is that she can, as has already been detailed by leading Tshibaka-critic Dermot Cole, try to boil it down into a dollar savings that will become a centerpiece of her campaign. Cole can write the most exhaustive takedown of Tshibaka we’ve ever seen and it’ll still only reach a fraction of the audience that a multi-million dollar campaign can buy. 

If there’s any takeaway here from today’s free-word association, it’s that elections care very little about facts, “scandals” that require an explanation of Alaska’s procurement laws or attendance records. Don’t get caught flat-footed.

April Fool’s Day is to me what New Year’s Eve fireworks are to dogs

The never-ending storm

The House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday got underway with its unenviable task of “considering methods to control state spending, identifying ways in which state government programs may be made more efficient and propose new measures to raise additional state revenue.” Like termination dust, the formation of the Ways and Means Committee seems to mark the moment in Alaska’s boom-and-bust cycle where the bust gets bad and long enough for legislators to say, “Look, the good times are probably over and we gotta figure something out.” And while the last bust was rescued in large part by booming oil prices conveniently timed with a booming oil tax, Tuesday’s presentation made the case that we’re in just about one of the toughest points in Alaska’s history. 

The presentation featured one of the most comprehensive lookbacks at state revenue and spending, produced by the Alaska Legislative Finance Division, going all the way back to statehood. You can find the whole presentation and charts here (or here), but this chart in particular stood out. A look at state revenue and spending in nominal dollars paints a picture of unfettered growth of government, but taking a look at how it breaks down across Alaska’s growing population seems to be more telling.

(Total UGF Revenue is traditional tax revenue like oil taxes and, pre-Alaska Permanent Fund days, an income tax among others; the PFD from ERA is the amount of money that came out of the Alaska Permanent Fund to pay for the dividend; and the POMV is the revenue from the Alaska Permanent Fund that now pays for some split of state government and dividend)

The chart shows that Alaska’s booms have been tied closely to oil booms, but what was perhaps most interesting is the tax revenue at either end of the chart. When adjusted for inflation and population, Alaska’s current tax revenue picture is roughly equal to pre-pipeline days when an income tax was the state’s chief source of revenue. The situation was also underlined by Office of Management and Budget Director Neil Steininger’s presentation that mapped the last decade against the state’s dwindling savings accounts.

“This slide is trying to illustrate that concept of weathering the storm. In fiscal years ’14, ’15, ’16, it might have been easy to say, ‘Oh, this is all going to turn around, this is temporary.’ But we’re going on about a decade now, and it really is no longer a storm, necessarily, it’s kind of the new normal,” he said. “It needs significant structural changes to the way the state approaches its finances.”

Of course, there’s a lot of different opinions on how to even begin solving the problem. The Dunleavy administration wants to first see several constitutional amendments that would really box in the Legislature’s ability to implement taxes, its power to spend and enshrine the dividend. Some legislators would like to see revenue part of the discussion ahead of time, with the thinking that this is all tied together. 

But it seems like there’s at least broad agreement that investment income from the Alaska Permanent Fund is now the state’s main source of revenue, a point that’s particularly critical when the governor and pro-PFD legislators are pushing to overdraw the Alaska Permanent Fund. It’s a point that’s been made before but the more money you take out of the Alaska Permanent Fund, the less there is to invest, meaning future returns will be smaller and deficits will be larger. 

It sounds like the committee, chaired by Anchorage Democratic Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, has a lot of things planned for the session and interim—Medicaid spending was one that was named—but the work on the Alaska Permanent Fund could be the most significant in the near-term. The fund was set up to help cover the bills once the finite resource of North Slope oil production came to an end. Unfortunately, the fund is about $40 billion short of being able to be all things to everyone, so this year (and likely next) will really pit the long-term health of the fund against the immediate pressure of paying out big dividends while maintaining state spending. 

It’ll certainly be worth continuing to watch. The next hearing is Thursday at 11:30 a.m. with the state’s revenue forecast and the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation’s Angela Rodell.

Good Mike Dunleavy

A long time ago, I mused about whether I’d be even capable of seeing through everything to recognize when Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his administration did something commendable. It might be the chills and fogginess speaking, but this 30-second spot urging Alaskans to get the vaccine is pretty darn commendable.

Also, the comments are about as demoralizing and as hilarious as you might expect.

Have a nice weekend, y’all. Go get the vaccine so we can get through this together.

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