Welcome to the latest belatest edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column attempting to make sense of what little political news and rumor can make it through the end-of-summer haze. As always, speculating and prognosticating on Alaska politics is best treated as a recreational activity second only to the blood sport of drawing election district lines.
As always, you can get ahold of your sore-backed editor at [email protected] with tips, tricks and suggestions on how to fix my spelling and grammar (and, no, I will not read these again before hitting publish, stop asking!)
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.
It’s official. Gov. Mike Dunleavy has filed to run for re-election. In a ranging and largely dodgy interview with Alaska Public Media’s Nat Herz, Dunleavy seemed to be back into 2018 campaigning form of dodging, ducking and half-answering tough questions. He called Alaska Public Media’s masking mandate “virtue signaling” and, when challenged about his apparent commitment to supporting local control over health mandates, he said, sure, but that he still “reserve(s) the right to complain” and, hey, we all gotta die some time. Reflecting on his disastrous first year in office—the one that saw most of his budget vetoes restored by the Legislature and launched a recall—he said he could’ve communicated a little better. And will he be running with Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer (because the new election system requires gubernatorial candidates to pick their running mates rather than have their running mates picked for them by the voters)? “As of now, yes.” 😐
In the big picture, former Gov. Bill Walker is officially still in the “seriously” considering a run and former Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara’s got his exploration committee going. Obligatory: The 2022 election in Alaska will be unprecedented with the brand-new combination of open primaries and ranked-choice coting on the books as well as a court ruling that just took the state’s contribution limits off the books. Who really knows how things will play out under the new system.
But the 2022 election and the 2022 campaign are still really a ways away from needing to actually dominate a whole lot of headspace at this moment. Instead, I wanted to hone in what the governor said about taxes in his interview and what it means for the upcoming special session.
A vote of the people
APM: Your position on taxes has been that if we were going to have any new ones, they would need to be approved by voters. Do you still believe that?
MD: I do. We’ve put together a number of different revenue options for people to look at in the Legislature, but they’re the ones that have to come up with the options and the mix that they think will work if they need revenue. But, I’m not going to be excited about putting revenue into place unless there is a constitutional amendment that accompanies that. I believe that we need to protect the people from an overreaching government that will want to spend more than we take in.
APM: So, fair to say that if the Legislature advanced a form of a tax, would you veto it unless it was part of a constitutional amendment — either a spending cap or a requirement that voters approve the new taxes?
MD: I would not put it in law unless the constitutional amendments accompany that. And they need to go to the people.
Yup. That marks a backtrack from Department of Revenue Commissioner Lucinda Mahoney’s (admittedly carefully caveated) declaration on Tuesday that the governor would support a sales tax if it got the support of the Legislature. When pressed on whether or not the governor still demanded any and all broad-based taxes be approved by a vote of the people, Mahoney seemed to indicate that he had softened on the position and wasn’t planning on including pushing his constitutional amendment requiring such approval on the upcoming special session. Not so, Dunleavy says.
He’s still holding firm to his demand that the Legislature first amend the constitution to require any and all broad-based taxes be approved both by voters and the Legislature (which has the clever bonus of giving the Legislature the power to cut off voter-initiated tax hikes). The message: Don’t even try.
Let’s be clear, approving a sales tax at this fall special session was always going to be a long shot but the fact that it even seemed like it was on the table was a pretty big development after nearly a decade of focusing by and large on cuts to government services and the dividend with Republicans standing in the way of any new revenue. That we had the likes of Sen. Mike Shower and Mahoney signaling that they were willing to hold their nose on a sales tax in order to pay for the gap created by paying out a larger dividend (and, sure, this is a matter of framing) felt like a step forward in the conversation. It was a sign that, maybe, the far-right Republicans were no longer holding on to the fiscal fantasy that larger dividends can be paid out without significant changes to the rest of the state’s financial picture. Now that we were all getting on the page that someone has to pay, we could finally talk about who pays.
Now, though ,Dunleavy’s return to his hardline demands snuffs out any chance that the Legislature would seriously consider a new broad-based tax. Why stick your neck out for one when the governor promises to veto it?
It’s a remarkable thing to do on the eve of the special session, especially when the governor’s largest bargaining chip to achieve his political goals—the Power Cost Equalization program—has been taken off the table thanks to Superior Court Judge Josie Garton’s ruling. And while most progressives chafe at the regressivity of a sales tax, I would hazard a guess that there may—push come to shove—the votes to pass one, especially if it means mostly settling the state’s financial picture.
Now, it seems like the veneer of optimism is giving way to good ol’ pessimism. There were low expectations for what might be accomplished in this upcoming session and now there’s some rumblings that there may not even be much of a session (a wild possibility given, you know, the whole lack of a dividend thanks to the governor’s veto). The Legislature’s working group is still nobly plugging away at its proposal ahead of the start of the special session, but it’s notable that there are no meetings on the state’s finances on the schedule for next week. I’ve heard talks about an overview of what Judge Garton’s PCE ruling may mean for the state’s finances moving forward (hint: it’s a big deal) but not much beyond that. It sounds like folks are expecting to get a handle on what’s even possible within the first few days of session, which might mean session will end in time for everyone to get back to the Kenai River Classic at the end of the week.
New data, new maps
The 2020 Census data is finally out and it paints a picture that we were all pretty much expecting. Alaska—like most of the country—is also more diverse than it was in 2010 with the share of the population that identifies as white alone dropping from 68.1% to 57.5%, the Mat-Su borough led the state in population growth, and both Anchorage and the Interior lost residents. Beyond the snapshot at the changing state, the Census will serve as the foundation for the upcoming plan to redraw the state’s legislative district lines. According to the a breakdown by Alaska Public Media, it’s looking like the Mat-Su area will be due an additional House district while Anchorage stands to have one fewer district located entirely within the boundaries of the municipality and other areas are also looking at a reshuffling.
The Alaska Redistricting Board will be holding a hearing on the changes at 10 a.m., Aug. 23 from the Anchorage Legislative Information Office.
Putting it lightly, redistricting is a huge deal especially at a time when the deeply conservative Mat-Su will be getting a bigger seat at the table. It’s also a prime spot for shenanigans where the board can try to maximize one political parties advantage through “creative” district drawing and strategic pairings of incumbents. I covered the lawsuit spawned out of the 2010 cycle, so I’ll plan on writing up some of those oddities as we get into the process ahead.
Get yer pitchforks!
After whining bloody murder and witch hunts last week when his definitely not qualified pick for to lead the Department of Health resigned following a pretty roundly disastrous showing in front of the Anchorage Assembly, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson saw six more of his appointees confirmed the Assembly this week in a largely non-controversial series of votes (and, from what I heard, it could’ve been controversial if folks really wanted to dig in).
Now-former Health Director Dave Morgan will still leave his mark on the city after having forced out the department’s two top public health folks and his definitely not qualified pick for fill-in chief medical officer is still on the job, still doesn’t have any training in infectious diseases and, surprise, is pretty much inline with Bronson’s political approach to the pandemic.
While much of the attention has been focused in on Bronson’s changes to the Department of Health, it’s sounding like he’s also putting pressure on appointees who care too much about the environment for his taste.
Folks like trawling Facebook pages way more than I could ever stomach, but at least they’re generous enough to bring stuff like this post from Rep. Sarah Vance promo-ing racing pig “Full Dividend” at the Kenai Peninsula State Fair.
Keep an eye out, and you’ll also see my racing pig “Taco Bell Double Decker taco.” I hear it’s the best way to bring back long-gone things.
Not gonna touch that one right now.
With that, have an excellent weekend and don’t spend too much time staring into the cosmic abyss that Mat-Su will be getting a whole extra seat in the Legislature in 2022.