Welcome to the latest edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly attempt to catch up on and break down the news from the week that was in Alaska politics. As always, speculating on Alaska politics is a favored pastime of Alaska politics, second only to dunking on ill-informed Outsider takes on the 2022 U.S. Senate race, and should be treated as such.
As always, you can get ahold of your humble editor at [email protected] or wherever fine tweets are sold.
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The better the look we get at Bronsonville, the 400-ish-bed shelter proposed by Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson, the less I feel like we really know about it. This week’s special meeting of the Anchorage Assembly’s Committee on Housing and Homelessness was particularly illuminating/befuddling. Befuddling because the pieces, the cost, the lack of details about the plan, the timing, logistics and the longevity of the project don’t really add up to anything beyond another costly Alaska boondoggle. Illuminating because the whole thing puts a fine point on the hypocrisy of a group that spent the last 18 months screeching about the alleged illegality of using CARES Act money to support people experiencing homelessness and brought recalls and death threats to the apparent lack of public input on the process.
On Tuesday, the administration is going to be asking the Anchorage Assembly to approve the $15 million of mostly CARES Act money to build Bronsonville all without a public hearing. Without a public hearing! I thought the city had attempted recall and a pending recall over just that. But now that Bronson hopes to skirt public input on his detail-light plan, there’s no similar outcry (Wait, are you telling me it was performative politics with very little regard to the actual underlying policy?!?).
And, sure, as several progressives have told me, the Bronson administration is at least kinda sorta adopting what they’ve been pushing for in the last year by utilizing public funds to invest in a shelter, but even those details as we learn them aren’t looking all that great.
With a price tag of $15 million—$5 million for the tent-like structure and $10 million for the construction, which includes a $4 million cost to relocate the police department’s evidence impound lot—Bronsonville would be three times the cost of the Midtown Alaska Club, a Plan B proposal teed up by former acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson that would house about 150 people along with a navigation center aimed at getting people back on their feet. The Bronsonville approach would also have an eye-watering operating price tag of $12 million annually, which would swallow up most of the revenue from what I have been told was Anchorage Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar’s personal (voter-approved) alcohol tax (Gah, the hypocrisy of it all is rich even for today’s hypocritical politics).
What stood out the most about this week’s hearing is that Bronsonville isn’t even a long-term solution. Chief of Staff Craig Campbell and Homelessness coordinator Dr. Michael Morris threw around the word “temporary” and “short-term” a lot at the hearing, conceding that this $15 million plan (well, $27 million plan once you factor in one year’s operating costs) is intended to last just two years and is aimed primarily at keeping people sheltered during the winter. After that the tent-like structure could be used for, um, other emergencies? (Because there’s not a load of schools and other city facilities that could be used for mass emergency shelters in a pinch.)
To me, the whole thing reeks of a steep opportunity cost. If the city is really going to invest $27 million in one year into assisting people experiencing homelessness, aren’t there better, more effective, longer-term investments that the city could be making? After all, this is largely just a shelter with what sure sounds like a litany of sole-sourced contracts along the way. This isn’t transitional housing or a path to permanent housing solutions, and what kind of room would there be for those kinds of services if the city goes all in on this?
You can find the whole hearing shoddily recorded here, but I think it was all best summed up by one of the final public testifiers.
“It seems like there’s this threat that if we don’t build this mass shelter that people will die because they have nowhere to go. It seems bananas to me. I understand stopping and reassessing something when a new administration comes in. I don’t understand saying that if we if we don’t move forward with this giant project with very few details immediately that people will die this winter. It seems like a hostage situation,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of opinions on how the shelter should or shouldn’t be except for that I don’t want to spend a ton of money on something that won’t work well. It’s not the building that makes it work or not, it’s the details and we don’t have the details.”
If the assembly heeds the viciously angry threats they’ve had to endure from the Save Anchorage crowd over the last year, then it’d have no other choice but to postpone the upcoming vote in order to have a public hearing. Ya gotta hear from the public, after all. If the assembly doesn’t ultimately fork over the big bucks to Bronson, as several assembly members asked this week, then the administration conceded it will try for something smaller.
Oh, the deadline for that smaller Plan B (the Midtown Alaska Club building) is today.
$4 billion faux pas
Folks are of different opinions on whether Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s failure to veto the $4 billion transfer from the Alaska Permanent Fund’s Earnings Reserve Account to the constitutionally protected corpus really changes all that much going forward. Some see it as a critical strategic failure that takes $4 billion that the governor had been eyeing to spend on PFDs and his fiscal plan “bridge” off the table heading into the fall special session. Others point out that there’s a heckuva lot of other money in the fund that could still make overspending possible, not to mention a simmering question over just how firm those constitutional protections for the corpus are actually (namely whether or not the increased value of investments contained in the corpus are actually protected or whether it’s only deposits of oil revenue and by the that are actually protected).
It all combines together for a big “who knows” when it comes to the fall special session and the Legislature’s Comprehensive Fiscal Plan Working Group.
Also drawing a lot of debate is whether or not the failure of the veto was as much of a failure as the Dunleavy administration has made it look. Is the governor actually playing 4D chess here along with vetoing the PFD and this is some kind of big-brain maneuver to finally deliver that mega PFD, payback and a litany of constitutional amendments? I think that’s probably giving an administration that seems to be struggling to just get through the day a little too much credit.
He and his allies complained that the Legislature didn’t give him enough time to review a budget that had been finalized for two weeks, but what probably didn’t help either was Dunleavy’s apparent refusal to go to Juneau during the special session that allegedly required the budget document to be physically relayed between Anchorage and Juneau. Maybe they don’t let red pens through the TSA checkpoints.
The Legislature’s Comprehensive Fiscal Plan Working Group got underway on Wednesday with what was nearly an hour of niceties and platitudes about working together, compromising and finding common ground on the state’s financial future. It’ll be helmed by Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, and Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, who were called the “co-facilitators” for the group. There wasn’t much substance to report out of the hearing, but what caught my ear was Sen. Hoffman’s warning to members that he wouldn’t tolerate “procedural maneuvering” to hamper, delay or stop the group’s work altogether. He pledged that the group will produce something that can be sent to the House and Senate, noting that the final product cannot be guaranteed by this committee. The other takeaways:
- The fall special session, which is set to start August 2, is likely to be delayed to give the working group additional time to come up with a solution. Finding a full fiscal plan in three weeks after it’s eluded the state for nearly a decade was always going to be an impossible task, so this makes sense. Senate President Micciche and Speaker Stutes indicated that the Dunleavy administration may be on board with this. What it does mean, however, is everyone affected by the failure of the Constitutional Budget Reserve vote, primarily the more than 80,000 Alaskans who rely on the Power Cost Equalization program, will be kept waiting that much longer. As was reported by KYUK, it means some households could see their energy bills double with the bigger impact being felt by energy-intensive operations like water systems and sewage treatment.
- The group plans on taking the effort on the road… system. Sen. Lyman Hoffman said he plans to hold hearings in both the Mat-Su and Fairbanks. No date has been set for the hearings.
- The schedule hasn’t been finalized, but the group is looking at meeting twice a week to come up with the plan. The first hearing has been penciled in for 10 a.m. on Tuesday, July 13 but could change. (The House Ways and Means Committee has also scheduled an overview on revenue for 1 p.m. that day.)
The rest of the picture
The big issue with the state’s entire fiscal plan isn’t so much the PFD as it is the what comes next and who pays. No one but the most deluded of the Legislature believe a substantial PFD of any size can be paid without significant changes to either the state’s services, which would require statutory changes to program-driven spending like K-12 funding and Medicaid to even begin to get close to the magnitude of cuts needed, or new taxes. Dunleavy and allies have been insistent that they first need to box in the state’s options by constitutionalizing the dividend and setting a strict spending limit before they can even consider the other options. In a newly released polling commissioned by the House Majority Coalition and conducted by Dittman Research explains why.
The takeaway is that large constitutionally guaranteed dividends are extremely broadly popular… if that’s the only thing you’re asking. When you start to ask about the what’s next with what’s next consisting of either cuts or taxes, the popularity of the plan plummets a significant amount.
Find the full survey here:
And that’s it. Have a nice weekend, y’all.