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If it were a regular session with a regular organization and a “regular” budget, right about now things would be moving into the final mad dash of session with the budget coming together and deal-making over other bills underway. Instead, it’s a situation that’s best-described as quiet chaos with no certain end in sight. So today, like we did around Day 60 (ostensibly the halfway point of session), let’s take a look at where some of the major storylines of session are and where they might be headed.
The budget: Ah, the budget. While there was something ranging from lip service to genuine interest in addressing the state’s structural deficit (the ol’ new revenues, moderate cuts and resolution to the dividend formula), it seems like everyone’s largely given up on making significant progress on it this session and are, instead, looking at what’s realistically doable. Legislators don’t seem particularly interested in expending the considerable political capital needed to push a tax when Gov. Mike Dunleavy is at the end of the line with a veto pen. An income tax, one of the most preferred ways to equitably raise revenue, is almost certainly off the table. While there are some nibbles around the edge on oil taxes, a sales tax and more targeted taxes like the fuel taxes, it’s going to be a big lift to get anything like that across the finish line this session.
The big lifeline coming the state’s way is more than $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan funding coming straight to the state (and that’s not to mention several hundred million more dollars coming directly to local governments, schools and tribes). The state has far more leeway on how it can be spent than previous federal infusions of cash but we’ll be waiting until nearly the end of session for the federal government to release the full guidance on the money (and even then it can be revised). This is going to be the major focus of the budget committees moving forward with several possible uses in mind: Does the state turn it into a dividend? Balance the budget? How much does the state spend this year? Should the state focus on its financial situation or focus on economic recovery?
“We’re looking at breaking it up over 2 or 3 years, so we don’t waste it,” Senate Finance Committee co-chair Bert Stedman told the Sitka Chamber of Commerce at the end of March, according to a report by KCAW.
And how about that mega dividend? Stedman says it’s unlikely:
“We would still have a substantial budget deficit and we’d be eroding the Permanent Fund,” Stedman said, “and some of us are very concerned that if we erode the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve — which is the spendable portion of the Permanent Fund — we have nowhere else to go.”
But then again, while Stedman has great control over what comes out of the Senate Finance Committee he doesn’t have as much say over how the majority of the Senate votes once the budget bill reaches the floor.
Voting laws: Alaska’s far-right Republicans have not given up on the Big Lie, arguing that the state must join Georgia and other states in “restoring trust in elections” by passing laws that make it harder for what they believe are Democratic-leaning groups to vote. Like in every other state, Alaska has not been home to any significant voter fraud other than the wild and baseless allegations that some Republicans have been bandying about. It’s critical to keep in mind that the lost trust they’re hoping to remedy is the direct result of their lying to voters about the outcome of the 2020 election. Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Shower has adopted precisely that playbook in pushing Senate Bill 38, but it’s something that will likely be at the heart of any of the election bills being pushed by Republicans this session.
As far as Shower’s legislation goes, we’re still waiting on the rewrite of the bill and have not had a hearing on it in several weeks. Public testimony has still not been scheduled. We’re likely to see a somewhat moderated out bill once it’s released that may take the edge off for some, but one that I would expect will still have problems for anyone interested in free and fair elections. Unlike Georgia, Texas and several other states entertaining these laws, Alaska has a split government with the bipartisan majority in the House that will likely be a severe impediment to any such efforts. I’m inclined to write the whole thing off given the House’s almost certain opposition to the bill but, sigh, I guess we really do never know.
Covid-19: With plateauing vaccination rates and climbing case rates, Alaska may be entering another difficult patch of the pandemic. So far, 42.1% of eligible Alaskans have received at least one dose of the vaccine but that means nearly 60% of Alaskans have not. In the halls of the Legislature, it seems like the vaccination uptake is just over 50% . Whether it’s an issue of information—it seems like a not-insignificant number of people either don’t know they’re eligible (as a lot of younger, healthy people were told it’d be summer when they’d be eligible) or don’t know that the vaccine is free—or misinformation spread in part by far-right legislators is going to be important to understand moving forward. Just what’s slowing the uptake of vaccinations will be critical in informing how the state and health partners work to encourage people and allay fears about the vaccine. Without widespread vaccination, the state will continue to stumble along far shy of herd immunity.
As far as the legislative response, things seem to be at a logjam over whether or not to pass very narrow legislation containing limited powers to deal with the pandemic or whether a more all-of-the-above-just-in-case approach is needed. The governor and Senate Republicans are on the limited end of things while the House has argued—and passed—as the all-of-the-above-just-in-case approach, specifically with the emergence of new strains in mind. The Senate is apparently still mulling what to do and a hearing scheduled for this morning has been canceled. Meanwhile, the delay does one thing for sure: Tie up boosted funding for food stamps. It means that beneficiaries of the program will not be getting those boosted allotments as long as the bill is pending. As long as it’s passed by mid-April, the state believes they can retroactively disburse the funding but as many have pointed out, “You can’t feed a family with retroactivity.”
All the rest: Anything else you’d like to see? Let me know.
- House Speaker Louise Stutes and Gov. Mike Dunleavy have dueling bills that would establish an operations board for the Alaska Marine Highway System. Dunleavy’s version would vest much of the decisions on the board in the governor’s hands while Stutes’ version would spread things out between the governor and the Legislature. Both bills seek to give the state’s ferry system more stability but it shorter than suggestions like the establishment of a state corporation akin to the Alaska Railroad Corporation.
- Legislation protecting the DMV offices from closures is also gaining traction, largely as a sign that legislators don’t put a heckuva lot of trust that former Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka’s promise to not close offices regardless of the Legislature’s actions on the budget.
- Senate Republicans are pushing ahead with their own education bill over the objections of Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, who worked on an education bill with Gov. Mike Dunleavy last year. Some of the hearings on the bill have been pretty contentious by the standards of the largely mild-mannered Begich. As with all things education, it’s likely too contentious to get much traction.
- It wouldn’t be a legislative session without several controversial and underqualified appointees. I haven’t got a chance to listen to a couple from last week, but it sounds like they’re worth circling back to.