Saturday in the Sun (April 24): The Stuck in a Rut edition

Friday in the Sun is here

Update: Covid-denying Sen. Lora Reinbold has reportedly been banned from traveling on Alaska Airlines for the immediate future for her latest outbreak (see below). A source has shared with us this internal communication from Alaska Airlines:

Welcome to the latest Saturday edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly attempt to keep up with and break down the Alaska political news we’ve been into this week.

Adapted from The Midnight Sun Memo, a newsletter project from your humble Midnight Sun editor. For everyone who’s been asking about keeping up via email or how to support the work we’ve been doing here, we finally have an answer in this nifty newsletter. Sign up now!

Give that can another kick!

In a move that no one except for everybody could have seen coming, the Legislature is winding up to kick the can on the state’s fiscal woes for another year. While hopes for a long-term and durable solution were always a long shot this year, the Anchorage Daily News’ article—Hopes dim in Alaska Legislature for a Permanent Fund sustainability fix this year—puts a nail in that coffin. Too big and too unpopular are the decisions when there’s a hearty $1 billion in federal relief aid to get us through the year (and the billions of dollars in the Alaska Permanent Fund’s earnings reserve account, for that matter). The impact of a failure to address revenues, the dividend and spending this year means the state will be another year away from a solution if not more because, after all, next year is an election year. 

In the most evergreen of legislative statements, Senate President Peter Micciche acknowledged the waning interest of legislators to make the hard decisions and conceded that it’ll be that much worse when the money runs out. 

“I have noticed one by one, legislators have lost interest in making the difficult decisions necessary to get that done,” said Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna. “We will be slapped in the face with the fiscal reality the moment these federal dollars are gone.”

Swap in constitutional budget reserve dollars, statutory budget reserve dollars, oil tax dollars or Alaska Permanent Fund earnings reserve dollars and you’ve got a statement that spans Alaska’s history. 

The House rolled out the latest version of its budget today, using about $700 million of the federal relief dollars to pad out the budget with some new spending but mostly to substitute in for scarce general fund dollars. The overall goal here, it seems, is to just get a budget across the finish line while buying the state a little bit more time to find a solution. But that’s the problem.

Legislators have burned through billions of dollars in savings already in the name of buying time to find a solution, but exactly how much closer are we today than we were when oil revenue first collapsed? The passage of the percent of market value draw from the Alaska Permanent Fund was the most significant step, but it doesn’t close the deficit and already legislators are eying the fund as yet another pot of money for buying that time. Politically, we’re still miles away.

One of the core problems here is the mistrust between the various factions—the let’s not decimate state services and implement a tax folks, the let’s pay out the biggest PFDs possible while cutting government folks and the let’s cut the PFD instead of taxing folks—that prevents pretty much any plan or piece of a plan from advancing. We’ve gotta settle the few things we agree on, some say, while others say it all needs to be solved at once (while the most vocal proponents of this plan have conveniently not suggested a plan to solve it all at once). 

The whole battle was embodied particularly well during this week’s meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee on Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins’ proposed constitutional amendment that would transform the Alaska Permanent Fund into a true endowment model where legislators can spend only the percent of market value draw on some split between services and the dividend. His pitch is that as long as the Legislature has easy access to money, it will avoid the hard decisions. 

As an attempt at compromise, committee Chair Rep. Ivy Spohnholz proposed an amendment that would require the Legislature pay out a dividend without specifying the size of the dividend. The conservative pro-PFD folks didn’t like it, noting that a PFD of one penny would qualify, and the PFD skeptics didn’t like it, arguing that anything beyond that would forever complicate the state’s financial outlook. If you need an idea of how far apart everyone is, Rep. Mike Prax, R-North Pole, suggested a change that would see the entirety of the POMV go to PFDs (a big increase over even the statutory language) suggesting that people can voluntarily donate whatever they want to fund government. 

Ultimately the amendment failed and the measure advanced out of committee with members on both sides pretty much admitted that it lacks the two-thirds vote needed to clear the chambers and be put to the voters. As Kreiss-Tomkins said last week, the continued path of spending down savings in the name of avoiding hard decisions is a situation where everyone loses. I guess the other side doesn’t win, either. 

Where’s this all going? A former legislator once told me that one benefit of the push for a full PFD is that it will burn through the state’s savings even faster, forcing legislators to finally get their shit together on the budget. The more times passes, the more I think that that will be the ultimate course of action. At this point, I don’t know what else will force legislators into action and, unfortunately, Alaska will be that much worse off for it because every year that the state spends down its savings, the eventual solution will be that much worse with less money to go around. 

But, hey, I guess at least this year it’ll be mostly done with someone else’s money. 

The view from Anchorage 

Over in Anchorage, the city is moving ahead with not one but two recounts next week in the school board race. With a .35 percentage point difference separating progressive Kelly Lessens from extreme-right conservative Judy Eledge, the race for School Board Seat B qualifies for an automatic city-funded recount as expected. We’ve also heard that the clerks have ordered a recount for School Board Seat E race where progressive Pat Higgins is outside the .5 percentage point margin in a crowded race against conservative Sami Graham. Graham, however, isn’t going to be required to pony up the $50 per precinct fee for the recount. We’re told it’s a “we gotta restore faith in the election process” sort of thing akin to the state’s freebie audit of Ballot Measure 2’s victory. Neat! 

In the run-off news, ballots are in the mail. Be sure that when you’re signing, though, as that was the leading cause for ballot rejections the last time around with 850 ballots rejected because the signatures didn’t match what was on file. Voters have the opportunity to cure their ballots (about 600 took advantage of this for the April 6 election), but the advice is to think about your official driver’s license signature when signing.

Chair Lance Pruitt

Thanks to a tip from an APOC aficionado, former Rep. Lance “$1 million in APOC Fines” Pruitt is the new chair of Outside money group Families of the Last Frontier, according to a new filing. The vehicle for Republican State Leadership Committee money spent heavily during the 2020 election supporting losing Republican candidates like Pruitt and Mel Gillis. According to the filing, Pruitt and national Republican dollars intend to get involved in the Anchorage mayoral run-off.

0

That’s how many DUI arrests the Alaska State Troopers made up during its beefed-up driving enforcement efforts on 4/20, the agency announced today. They did nab one driver who was driving with a revoked license, investigated three damage-only collisions and issued 56 citations, of which 28 were issued for speeding and 7 for lack of seatbelts. No word if any of those actually related to the devil’s lettuce. 

0

That also happens to be how many likes the anti-Recall Dunleay group, Keep Dunleavy, had at the start of this week thanks to a couple eagle-eyed recall supporters. Now it’s at 2. 

We’re going to need a bigger cake 

While most were celebrating the end of the Chair Reinbold Era this week following the Senate’s 17-1 vote to take away the compassion-challenged Republican’s key platform to hock constitutional fan fiction about the Supreme Laws of the Land, it was hard to overlook just how adamant Senate President Peter Micciche and Senate Majority Leader Shelley Hughes were to leave the door open to welcoming Reinbold back. It’s temporary, the ball’s in her court and it’s up to her to behave herself. Well, here’s her at the Juneau Airport on Thursday. It’s almost like the Alaska Airlines staff don’t remember the VERY KIND, VERY CONSTITUTIONAL cake she sent them for last time.

Also, does Troy want to come work for the Legislature? I mean he shouldn’t, but the Legislature could use him.

‘I didn’t have a way to polish this turd’

That was Fairbanks Democratic Sen. Scott Kawasaki’s assessment of Sen. Mike Shower’s blockchain voodoo voting bill, Senate Bill 39, after the amendment process in the Senate State Affairs Committee on Thursday. While Minority Leader Tom Begich found himself offering an apology on the floor Friday, Kawasaki’s not entirely wrong. A detailed and, importantly, scat-free assessment of the bill was offered by data and politics nerd Will Muldoon, who took the time to call in during the committee’s long-postponed public hearing on the bill on Thursday night. He said the hollering about “corrupted data”–a technical term about losing files when you do something like yank the power plug in the middle of saving that’s not really accurate or appropriate to use when talking about outdated voter rolls– revealed just how little they knew about what they’re proposing.

“It’s a bit like the brown M&Ms in Van Halen’s dressing room, it tells me that we have an issue with fluency immediately. That coupled with stuff like trying to rely on a blockchain that isn’t decentralized,” he said, noting a roughly $33.5 billion Bitcoin heist that involved a centralized blockchain system akin to what’s proposed in the bill. “It isn’t going to be apples to apples with ballots but we’re not going to have any recompense for the individuals if that situation does happen. It’s a very complicated, very esoteric thing and to try to get that shotgunned into something as important as elections gives me a great deal of concern. I also worry about how that goes to the public. People need to be able to understand the systems they operate in and the systems they are controlled by. I don’t think we have that right now, that’s my concern. Just adding complexities to it is going to further that issue.”

F

In a story that continues to burn on, that’s the grade the Fairbanks North Star Borough got in a recent study by the American Lung Association on the country’s most-polluted cities. Just like the state’s latest bout of budget woes, some things never change. But, hey, according to the News-Miner, “the Lung Association also gave Anchorage a failing grade for short-term particle pollution. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough received a ‘D’ grade, and Juneau received a ‘C.'”

And finally

Speaking of things that never change, check out this memory from 2015 Alaska.

Have a nice weekend, y’all and don’t get stuck in any ruts.

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