Welcome to a very special early edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column attempting to catch up and make sense of the news of the week. As always, speculating and commenting on Alaska politics is a favored pastime of many, second only to speculating on the series of events that would have led to these two tourists to the corner of the Parks Highway and Knik-Goose Bay Road in Wasilla.
You can get ahold of me, your humble editor via email at [email protected] with tips, tricks and unsolicited grammatical advice. Also, hey, if you’re ever looking to get your angry opinion or reporting published on this political news blog, also hit me up at that email. Always looking for more voices.
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.
But first, a programming note: With the end of session, a whopping 160.55 days since they gaveled in in January, I need a break. I’m going to be taking Thursday (when government keeps operating, Anchorage gets a new mayor and I turn 33) and Friday off this week to go on a hike and catch up with some home projects. I want to say thank you to everyone who’s been reading the newsletter for the last six months. What was really a spur-of-the-moment idea has turned into a new and personally refreshing outlet. I’ve loved having a closer connection with you all, reading each and every comment, email and Facebook message asking questions, offering insight and letting me know I got a name wrong. Really! It’s all made a world of difference. With the Legislature wrapped up (well, they have a special session in a month and a working group that’s supposed to have two public hearings and generate a complete fiscal plan in between), I want to take a moment to reflect with you all about what has worked, what hasn’t worked and what new topics you might want to see in future editions. Feel free to comment or hit reply on this email (it’ll land in my inbox), I’ll be sure to read everything… it just might take a few days. Thank you all so very much, Matt.
Opening Pandora’s budget box
There’s a lot of different ways to describe Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s time in office, but the one theme that I keep returning to is that more often than not the strategy has been focused on getting through the day with harebrained schemes and maneuvers with little thought for the long-term consequences. It’s a strategy that, unsurprisingly, has yielded few wins and caused some significant long-term headaches.
Dunleavy’s initial budget penned by Donna Arduin proposed deeply unpopular, politically motivating cuts that helped launch a recall and turned a majority-Republican Legislature against him. But it wasn’t just cuts for the sake of cutting, the simple goal of that entire exercise was “Deliver that mega PFD I promised to the voters without the taxes that would tarnish my image of being a 6’7” GOP darling.” And for all that effort, he got no dividend, no significant cuts and today’s Legislature may, push comes to shove, actually have the votes to implement some kind of new tax (they won’t because Dunleavy would veto it). By pushing too hard and too fast to deliver on his campaign promise, Dunleavy bullied away what little political capital he had over the course of the summer. Privately, key Republicans were simultaneously shocked that he would have stepped in it so completely but those familiar with his unremarkable career in the Senate were by and large unsurprised. While they may have been unwilling to commit their names to the recall petition—knowing full well that it would be used like some kind of McCarthyism document to root out the non-believers from state service and lucrative contracts—there were many who were hoping to see inoffensive and competent Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer take the reins.
The beginning of the pandemic marked a reprieve for the governor. Not only did all the social distancing and pandemic consciousness basically sideline all progressive-leaning politics, recall included, but it teed up easy decisions for the governor. Stop travel, hunker down and close the schools were all broadly popular in the uncertain days before the right-wing media machine spun up to cover for the president’s inept handling of it all. Things, obviously, became more complicated and more political as the pandemic progressed, but by then enough of an edge had been taken off Dunleavy largely by the steady presence of Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink, a person who’s care and understanding of Alaska, its differences and its strengths was a stark departure from the Us vs. Them that had characterized Dunleavy’s time in office. For a fleeting moment, we were all in it together. For some, it was enough to cool the heat of the recall and for others the dwindling clock on his term made the effort feel like a distraction to the ultimate prize of the 2022 election.
The recall itself was not all for naught. The governor’s budgets have since been light on cuts, his financial proposal is at least marginally more realistic than the one penned by Arduin after having essentially adopted 2018 opponent Mark Begich’s proposal for the dividend. It still doesn’t really balance out, but at least it’s a plan worth kicking the tires on before settling on something more economical.
Or at least that’s what it seemed like before the last two weeks sent Alaska barreling closer than it ever has to a shutdown. Grabbing on what appears to be the latest ploy of Republicans minorities to impose their will on everyone else (something that also happened in Maine to more success), the Alaska House Republican minority denied the budget the votes to make the it effective on July 1. Whether or not that vote was ever needed is still an open question that may be decided by the courts, but the entire exercise will have long-lasting and far-reaching implications on Alaska’s legislative process.
And while the right-wing media machine and its surrogates have sought to complicate the issue and cast blame at their key legislative target—the bipartisan House Majority Coalition—the fact remains that Dunleavy did little but fan the flames of shutdown. He was notably absent during the final days of session to go hunting, his administration sent out a remarkable email blast encouraging legislators to vote against the budget (apparently by accident, but then why draft it?), he only declared the budget “defective” once the votes had been taken and legislators were headed home, and, even more remarkably, he had planned to be out of state for a fundraiser with Trump as the second special session got underway. He seemed more focused on throwing insults at his legislative opponents on talk radio than striving to patch the differences to keep government open and 8% of the state’s workforce employed.
But perhaps the most telling piece of the entire exercise was that Dunleavy and allies attempted to turn the leverage into some combination of a $2,350 PFD, anti-abortion language, nearly a dozen capital projects in Mat-Su districts, unspecified cuts and a slate of constitutional amendments (they never really agreed on what they wanted, which complicated the issues). Each one of those items would’ve been a windfall for a governor heading into an election year with next to nothing to his name in terms of accomplishments. It ultimately all was a price too steep to keep the government open—not to mention the insane logistics of trying to get an entirely new budget passed in a matter of days—and five House Republican minority members blinked, ultimately settling for a “bicameral nonpartisan working group.” But what about next year and the year after that?
That’s the issue that’s currently before the courts in a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Treg Taylor against the Legislative Affairs Agency. The case has its own legal issues (namely that it’s essentially the governor unconstitutionally suing the Legislature but with extra steps), but at its heart it’s attempting to settle the issue on whether a minority of 14 representatives or seven senators can hold the government hostage in order to achieve a goal that couldn’t be reached through the normal legislative course. And, sure, the effective date vote has been reached on every other budget in recent memory, but this combination of Dunleavy’s newfound legal reading and the increasingly shutdown-happy politics of the minority present an uncertain and rocky future for Alaska and the state Legislature.
It was an enormous task for the Legislature to drag the budget across the finish line. The House had its problems but at least its majority had the votes to pass the budget. The Senate only reached 11 with the help of several minority Democrats, a remarkable and ominous feat. And now, they’ll essentially have to negotiate a budget that appeases 27 in the House and 14 in the Senate and that’s not to mention the critical three-quarter vote needed for the Constitutional Budget Reserve.
It would be one thing if the House Republican minority’s demands weren’t essentially “give us exactly everything we want or else we’ll shutdown government and, by the way, we actually think that would be a good thing as long as we can go fishing” or if the governor was more willing to bring everyone to the negotiating table with realistic expectations. But that’s not the situation we find ourselves in.
What this all means going forward is, frankly, uncertain. There’s a court case that maysettle this issue that will be argued in late July and legislators are just relieved to have made it through Dunleavy’s latest manufactured crisis. The Legislature would either have to effectively reach a supermajority vote on every budget, finding themselves beholden to the minority, or find a way to pass the budget at least 90 days before the start of the fiscal year. And, realistically, at least 15 days (not including Sundays) before then so the governor can review the budget and sign it. Still, a governor like Dunleavy could veto the budget even if it’s passed early and hand the shutdown leverage right back to an intransigent minority.
It’s all a logistical nightmare that, frankly, I’m happy to not be tasked with solving. And all for what? A “bicameral nonpartisan working group.” Great.
‘Someone with a pulse’
When I keep wondering what in the world else I’ll cover with the Legislature wrapping up its work (at least temporarily (and also I wrote this section before I put down 1,300+ words on the Dunleavy saga)), I am reminded that there’s already a U.S. Senate race underway. Ah, right. But at least the national outlets haven’t forgotten and have been busily plinking away at previews of the 2022’s ranked-choice bout of Murkowski v. Tshibaka v. probably a throwaway Democratic candidate v. probably another far-right candidate… Joe Miller?
While Trump and Tshibaka have been busy standing up their campaign against Murkowski, Murkowski did what she does best and delivered a measured and stinging blow in today’s Politico article covering the race:
“It doesn’t surprise me. The president has said, you know, that he’s gonna endorse anybody that has a pulse,” Murkowski said of GOP challenger, Kelly Tshibaka. “This, apparently, is somebody with a pulse.”
The entire article is chock-full of great quotes with the second best one coming from Montana Democratic U.S. Sen. John Tester: “She adds value. She’s not unreasonable. We don’t agree all the time, but shit, I don’t agree with my wife all the time either.”
Of course, the big uncertainty with everything around the 2022 election is the implementation of the open primary where the top four vote getters advance to a general election race that will be conducted with ranked-choice voting. Just how it plays out in the U.S. Senate race, the governor’s race and every other legislative race on the 2022 ticket will, I believe, largely rest on whether or not the system attracts more candidates representing a more diverse spectrum of political views. The status quo has largely resulted in essentially head-to-head legislative races with most being decided in the primary thanks to the way Alaska’s districts are drawn (which are getting redrawn, by the way). If that’s how things continue to play out, then ranked choice voting isn’t going to be particular exciting when you’ve got just two candidates to rank.
Eagle River Rumble
Speaking of the 2022 election, there’s going to be a lot of focus on the Eagle River legislative races. There’s rumblings among Anchorage circles that far-right Nazi plate-defending Anchorage Assemblywoman Jamie Allard has her sights set on moderate, labor-friendly, House Majority Coalition-joining Rep. Kelly Merrick’s seat. Under the status quo where this race would be decided by the Eagle River Republican primary voters, it’d likely be the end of the road for Merrick. Her doggedly anti-tax efforts would likely not be enough to save her from the mortal sin of bipartisanship. (Also, for a second, imagine if Merrick had stuck with this group of Republicans. Yeesh.)
The wrinkle in this whole thing, though, appears to be hinging on whatever covid-denying, ferry-taking Sen. Lora Reinbold decides to do. There are a lot of people who think/hope she might run for governor, which would make quite a bit of sense after what was largely a session spent raising her profile (By the way, she was also the best-known legislator according to the latest round of The Good, The Bad and The, wait, Who? legislator rankings with just 8 of 207 respondents skipping her ranking). You might even say that it’s her duty to the Supreme Law of the Land to stand up to the terrible tyranny of Gov. Dunleavy. And, hey, at the very least she could try to finally get her long sought-after apology from Dunleavy at a candidate forum… if he decides to show up to one.
And, as is everything with the 2022 election, everything comes with a big ol’ caveat of “Who the frig knows what’s gonna happen with ranked choice voting” and “REDISTRICTING!”
With all due respect about ‘With All Due Respect’
It took me a while to finally crack open Andrew Halcro’s new podcast and I have to admit that it’s pretty good. It may be the dad band of podcasts, but this is a dad band that your friends would crush on. Halcro’s institutional knowledge of Alaska and his flair make for an enjoyable and easy listen with most episodes not crossing the 15-minute mark (How he does that is a mystery). I bring it up, mostly, because of two recent podcasts that really stood out to me. First, is his June 24 podcast that highlights the parallels between Palin’s resignation (a few years before I arrived in Alaska) and Dunleavy’s apparently flagging interest in governing:
“Like Palin, Dunleavy has come to realize hard work is what governing is. It takes a willingness to work across the aisle, which Dunleavy does not possess. It takes a leader who’s willing to stand up and make tough decisions, which Dunleavy is not. And just like Palin, it’s always been evident that Dunleavy is not interested in governing. And it’s becoming more and more evident that he sees no brighter days ahead and won’t seek reelection. Now, I may very well be wrong, but there’s nothing that Dunleavy has done in the last six weeks that says he’s interested in another four years.”
Second is the May 30 podcast, where Halcro unloads on Alaska haters Suzanne Downing and Dan Fagan, asking their followers: “Do you have any pride?”
“If you’re listening either to Fagan or Downing, I just have one question for you: Do you have any pride? Any pride whatsoever? If you’re listening or reading these critics who combined have never accomplished a damn thing for this city or state and today have abandoned the state altogether, you should be embarrassed for yourself. There was a time when Alaskans were proud. We didn’t care what Outsiders said, but today two of the loudest, most partisan, intellectually bankrupt voices are telling Alaskans that their state is on fire, and they live in Tallahassee, Florida and New Orleans, Louisiana, two cities that are among the most crime-ridden and dangerous in the country but yet you still slurp up their denigrations of our neighbors and our state. Seriously, if you’re listening to people who aren’t Alaskans telling you what’s wrong with Alaskans, you lack the pride and conviction that so many Alaskans have in continuing to invest in and build this state to make it home.”
A lot is happening tomorrow.
- The government is set to continue operating on July 1 as long as Gov. Dunleavy signs the budget, which he’s already committed to doing. The big question, though, is just how much of a government we’ll have after the governor puts his line item veto pen to use (oh, god, remember all that stupidity about sending that governor red pens?). It’s sounding like we might not actually get a good look at just what he has in store today, and might be putting out the vetoes tomorrow, which ought to be fun for anyone whose job will be disappearing along with it. The big question that’s been raised is what, if anything, he might do with that $525 PFD. He could let it stand or veto it in yet another short-sighted ploy to get a bigger one.
- The automatic sweep of several semi-dedicated funds into the Constitutional Budget Reserve will happen thanks to the Legislature’s failure to secure the three-quarter supermajority vote needed for this measure. It’s a super wonky process that I do not have the effort to explain for the umpteenth time, but the impact is that starting on July 1 some 85,000 recipients of the state’s Power Cost Equalization program will see their benefits disappear and utility bills skyrocket, thousands of high school students and college students will see their promised scholarships vanish and a whole bunch of other somewhat more niche problems will be created. This isn’t the first time that the the CBR vote has failed under Gov. Dunleavy’s watch, but it’s increasingly difficult to see a path to getting this accomplished during the August special session given the high bar and even higher asking price. A possible alternative would be for the Legislature to fund these programs out of the Alaska Permanent Fund’s earnings reserve account, it’d be a stomach-churning move for many but cheaper than a $2,350 PFD.
- Anchorage will get its New Direction in the form of Mayor Dave Bronson. The cautious optimism that many had that he’d moderate out a bit has lost a bit of its luster with all the “final solution” talk surrounding the Bronsonville homeless camp/shelter/tent city thing. As the pragmatists point out, it’s all a starting point and perhaps maybe it won’t end up looking like a camp for detaining the city’s homeless population, which is a fair point, but we’ll see what gets underway when they take office. They’ll also be coming in with a leadership slate that includes city manager Amy Demboski, whose work in honestly vetting DPS Commissioner Amanda Price put her on the outs with the Dunleavy administration and gave her a corresponding bump up with everyone else, and conservative relic Craig Campbell as chief of staff. Also of note is one Niki Tshibaka, husband to short-time Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka who had been working as a… special assistant in the Dunleavy administration?
- I turn 33.
And with that, I’m gonna get out and enjoy the sun. Have the most excellent of weeks/weekends, everyone.