Saturday in the Sun (July 31): The Uncertainty of Uncertainty edition

Friday in the Sun is here

Welcome to the latest belated edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column where we try to keep up with the mad, mad, mad world that is Alaska politics. As always, speculating, prognosticating and griping about Alaska politics should be treated like a recreational activity, akin to losing Twitter friends over the great Anchorage pizza fight. (Spoiler, the best pizza is the pizza you have immediately in front of you.)

You can get ahold of your editor at [email protected] with tips, tricks and advice on where I can shove it for calling a goofus a goofus in a Friday in the Sun column from a whole year ago. Have an excellent weekend and get out and enjoy this weather (or, you know, just stay inside and watch the Olympics, which is also Very Good.)

Special session delayed

In a not-so-surprising move, legislative leadership on Thursday called for the governor to postpone the special session that had been scheduled to start on Monday in hopes to give more time for the working group to continue to hash things out in terms of a long-term fiscal plan. By the end of the day, Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued an updated proclamation pushing the special session off by two weeks with it now set to start on Aug. 16. The turn of events makes plenty of sense given the working group’s unrealistic three-week timeline and, frankly, what has been a glimmer of hope that the entire exercise may not be a complete waste of time.

As for that glimmer of hope, I’ll admit that I’ve had low expectations for this working group, it’s really hard to overlook the fact that on Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Shower is at least trying with his proposal for a sales tax and hike to oil taxes. As I wrote in Wednesday’s newsletter, the entire thing is riddled with a massive amount of politically convenient uncertainty when it comes to any details on things like, oh, passing an oil tax hike or figuring out how and where the state will cut $200 million out of its budget and keep it cut. But, still, this is one of the more conservative Republicans in the Legislature proposing a broad-based tax and a hike on the oil industry and that’s at least some progress compared to Gov. Dunleavy’s “Enshrine the PFD in the Constitution, then we can talk” proposal. Is it enough progress to actually, finally put a rest to nearly a decade of uncertainty around the state’s finances? Most definitely not, but then again the fact that we’re here is still a surprise all things considered.

Speaking of surprises, that amended special session proclamation from the governor is notably missing something: This year’s PFD. The call, which is limited by the governor, only currently includes the constitutional amendment to enshrine the dividend, the constitutional amendment to set a strict spending limit and a blanket item for unspecified new revenues. Nowhere on the list—which can only be amended by the governor—is the dividend or, for that matter, Power Cost Equalization. The lack of a budget bill is likely strategic—waiting in part to see how the working group plays out and to keep a lid on whatever hijinks the Legislature can get up to with a budget bill (plenty)—but it’s still a very odd look when the state is staring down the barrel of a $0 PFD courtesy of Gov. Dunleavy’s veto pen.

Judging by the growing chatter in right-wing media spheres about the Democrats and former Gov. Bill Walker’s secret plan to zero out the PFD, I’d hazard a guess that things are starting to look Not Great from the governor’s perspective and they’re laying the foundation for the Divert the Blame Game (and, really, laying the groundwork for a run at a constitutional convention). As I’ve written somewhere before, the biggest roadblock to a big dividend is Dunleavy and his stubborn refusal to offer up any semblance of a realistic plan to pay for it. Shower and even some of the other Republicans on the working group seem like they’re turning the corner on understanding that the budget cannot be balanced with wishful thinking. I doubt many will like whatever plan Shower and others come up with as it’s seeming to lean to toward the regressive end of things, but we’re all much better off if we’re having that debate.

So that’s all to say, who knows what’s going to happen with the special session and it probably makes sense from everyone involved to push it off a few weeks.

An even more dramatically different election

The slate of election reform measures approved by voters in the form of Ballot Measure 2 look like they’re here to stay after Anchorage Superior Court Judge Herman Walker Jr. ruled in favor of the reforms in an order issued on Thursday. It’s a wholly expected ruling given the plaintiffs’ (Alaska Independence Party, a frequent Libertarian candidate and Republican lawyer) ugly performance at oral arguments that seemed to bounce between a laughably wrong understanding of the law to emotional appeals better suited for talk radio or the Facebook comment section than the courtroom. Even Judge Walker pointed this out in the ruling, noting at one point that “By oral argument, Plaintiffs seemed to concede that the new law does not do that, although they were quite vocal about not liking the new law.”

But the obligatory “It’s a whole new election system that we can’t really predict” got a whole lot more complicated on Friday.

That’s when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order that strikes down Alaska’s limits on contributions to candidates. Previously, Citizens United had opened the doors to unlimited contributions to independent political action committees but this ruling pretty much nixes the limits on what can be given directly to candidates. Gone, for now, is the state’s law that limited an individual’s contribution to a candidate to $500 per year with a $3,000 cap per year cap on how much they can raise from Outside donors. It’s an incredibly consequential ruling that could open the doors to, say, a certain wealthy brother writing a nearly $400,000 check directly to his brother (though, to be honest, that sounds a tad better than an oil exec or, say, George Soros or a Koch brother writing a $400,000 check).

According to the ADN’s reporting on the ruling, it sounds like the Legislature could implement new spending limits as long as they’re a bit higher and are tied to inflation, but given, well, everything that may be a tougher task than we’d all like to hope. It’ll certainly make things… interesting.

Constitutional convention

The rumblings of a Dunleavy-led push to a constitutional convention is picking up steam and it didn’t go unnoticed that Wasilla Republican Rep. Kevin McCabe blurted out “there’s a constitutional convention in a year” when hashing it out with some far-right folks in the audience during a break at the working group’s Thursday public hearing in Anchorage. The exchange was captured on Politadick’s livestream of the hearing at about the 1:30 mark, where McCabe is arguing with Paul Kendall over the lack of pro-PFD support at the hearing. Kendall was irate that McCabe, a legislator, didn’t personally wrangle up people to make a scene over the dividend.

“I was hoping to have those exact people here tonight,” McCabe said, but after being blamed for not forming his own group, he fired back, “I cannot form a group of people such as the PFD Defenders and still be an effective legislator. I’m sorry, but that’s the way our process works. If you don’t like it there’s a constitutional convention in a year. You can change the constitution. But right now, we don’t have a choice. I don’t have a choice. I have to operate inside what’s happening here.” 

(Sidenote: Seeing McCabe, one of the most conservative and quick-to-anger legislators we’ve seen on the House floor, interacting with a far-right crowd that thinks he’s not doing enough is, honestly, some of the more interesting watching I’ve seen in a while. In this more one-on-one scenario, the grandstanding and politicking seems to fall away to a bit. At later exchange with Politadick, McCabe concedes that the biggest issue at hand is how to deal with whatever shortfall is created by the dividend.)

(Second sidenote: There’s not actually a constitutional convention in a year, but a vote on whether to have one (which, admittedly, may be what McCabe was talking about there). The terms of the constitutional convention would then have to be decided by the Legislature, creating a process to select delegates around the state, then hold the convention, agree on the changes and then send them back to the voters. It’s a big, lengthy, uncertain process and, critically, potentially very easy to bias in one direction or another depending on who’s writing the rules. It’s like redistricting but with the Alaska Constitution.)

Gubernatorial race

Word on the street is that Gov. Mike Dunleavy is considering dumping Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer for the 2022 election. Thanks to Ballot Measure 2, gubernatorial candidates get to pick their running mates heading into the primary rather than have their running mates decided by their own primary. The thinking seems to be that Anchorage Republican Sen. Mia Costello, who spent the last four years trending more and more to the right only to be called a moderate by Sen. Shelley Hughes during caucus organization this year, would be the pick for the spot.

You might ask, then, what happens to mild-mannered Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer? If we’re fantasy booking (excuse the wrestling term here) the 2022 gubernatorial race, Kevin Meyer would certainly make an interesting addition to the ticket. Sure, the guy’s got all the oil company crud but he still ticks a lot of boxes that would appeal to moderates and Republicans: Inoffensive, oil-friendly and probably not likely to burn the state down to deliver on what was always an unrealistic campaign promise. And, hey, there was a whole recall campaign that was aimed at making him governor after all.

Also in the ether is the potential reentry of former Gov. Bill Walker into the race, which seems like we’ll either hear something in the next week or two if it’s happening at all, and the exploratory committee of Democratic former Rep. Les Gara.

Personally, I’d still like to see how the race would pan out with a conservative to the right of Dunleavy. Perhaps a tyranny-fighting Sen. Lora Reinbold?

Putting the Young in Rep. Don Young

I’ve gotta hand it to whoever took over Alaska Rep. Don Young’s social media presence in the last few months, they’ve done wonders for the octogenarian’s social media presence. A healthy dose of focus on broadly popular things like legalizing marijuana, goofing on national outlets and, frankly, pretty reasonable turn on covid-19 and vaccines almost nearly make us forget about the whole “beer virus” nonsense. Almost. Nearly.

Anchorage, man

Get outta here with all this “let’s give him a chance nonsense” because this was the week that Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson became the mayor that we all pretty much expected him to be. Starting off the week with a childish dust-up with the Anchorage Assembly for not forking over $22 million for his temporary tent shelter, the city’s epidemiologist resigned as cases are spiking once again, his questionable appointments are coming under scrutiny and Bronson capped it off with one of the more bizarre news conferences in recent memory where his covid denialism, a key tentpole of his campaign, marked a major, but expected departure in the city’s public health policy.

At the meeting, we got to hear Bronson talk about how it’s government’s role to “provide the absolute best information that’s available” before going on to criticize the vaccine as “experimental” and go on about how he isn’t planning on it getting it… yeesh.

Meanwhile, there’s a storm brewing around the Bronson’s appointment of Dave Morgan as the city’s health director (one of many appointments who’re going to be running into problems with the Assembly) who said it’s “It’s a personal view kind of thing” when asked whether or not the city was in a pandemic (he later changed his tune, say “We are in a pandemic for the unvaccinated”). Now, the Assembly is expediting consideration of his appointment with a work session scheduled for next Tuesday and a vote on his confirmation set for Aug. 10.

It’ll all come across the backdrop of this lengthy thread posted by Choices, Inc. Director of Assertive Community Treatment Chris Blake on Twitter this week that details accusations of mismanagement and deeply inappropriate behavior with employees.

https://twitter.com/iamchrisblake/status/1421164010309775362

One more time for good measure

Lydia!!!

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