Saturday in the Sun (Sept. 11)

Friday in the Sun is here

Welcome to the latest belated edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column attempting to catch up on and recap as much as the Alaska political news that we can stand from the week.

A step forward and two unvaccinated steps back

From the start of the Legislature’s work on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s special session covid-19 bills, the key remark from even the more pro-covid legislators in the building was that the bill didn’t do anything to directly combat the pandemic. Sure, the measure would help hospitals staff up to meet the surge in covid-19 cases but there’s nothing that directly meets the bill’s stated purpose of “mitigation measures that enhance the state’s ongoing efforts to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus disease.” After a Friday floor session on the Senate floor, the bill stands to make things worse. 

We’re talking about the addition of three amendments offered by Sens. Roger Holland and Lora “Why if it’s not the consequences of my own actions” Reinbold that would allow a positive covid test of any kind (including a false positive) to be used in place of proof of vaccination, expands the vaccine opt outs to from religious and medical ground to “other” and a third that would prevent public places, including hospitals, from limiting access based on vaccination status. Couched in a heady mix of personal liberty, vaccine conspiracy and ivermectin breath, the Senate debate—as well as the flurry of special orders from the House this morning—serves as a reminder that there’s likely no amount of new daily hospitalization records, deaths or teary testimony from overworked hospitals will break through with these folks. Too valuable is the outrage and too outraged is the base. 

Reinbold even went as far as to call the situation in hospitals a “false alarm,” the latest wicked turn of the pro-covid crowd that is willing to go to any lengths to wave away the consequences of allowing the pandemic to run wild. When asked what would constitute “other grounds” under her amendment, Reinbold—who will be missing from the Legislature starting today because Alaska Airlines still doesn’t let her on board for making a scene over masks—said one example would be philosophical differences, like, um, “Maybe they believe the natural immune system is better.” 

Once exiled from the Senate over her refusals to wear a mask, Reinbold appeared to be in good company on the Senate floor on Friday with most of her amendments gaining traction with the core of the Republican majority as well as Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski (and Fairbanks Democratic Sen. Scott Kawasaki on at least one occasion). President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate, which is really a mandate to get vaccinated or undergo regular testing (something I’m sure everyone is just accidentally overlooking), weighed heavily on the debate though few seemed to support it. It was such an affront, several vaccinated Republicans said, that they had no choice but to essentially render all vaccination mandates meaningless. 

In all, the slurry of amendments was enough to win Reinbold’s vote… but lose the moderate Republicans and most Democrats. The changes, they said, made things worse and would ensure the pandemic would continue to drag on. 

“I believe there are several amendments that make the legislation a step back, major steps back that could potentially endanger the lives of Alaskans when initially we were looking forward to trying to protect them,” said Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel. “Every single life in Alaska matters and anything that we can do to save Alaskan lives, that’s what we should be doing. This pandemic is causing havoc to jobs, to families, to lives, to marriages, to no end. … It’s getting worse instead of getting better. We made a good bill worse.”

On its first go, the measure failed in remarkable fashion. But likely judging—whether it be official guarantees or just a good reading of the room—that the measures would, at the very least, be nixed by the House Health and Social Services Committee (set to hear the bill this afternoon), they returned to the floor in the evening to pass the bill.

The bill’s now headed to the House Health and Social Services Committee, but not before we got a floor session where House Republicans compared vaccine mandates (again, in most cases you can do regular testing instead of getting the vaccine) to the Holocaust and 9/11, which really just seemed like par for the disappointing course after everything. 

Also a reminder: Most if not all of the hospital-related measures contained in this bill are things that Dunleavy could still implement through a disaster declaration.

New maps, who dis

The Alaska Redistricting Board adopted two draft maps after a week of lengthy, spottily broadcasted hearings. You can find the plans here, but I’ll sum up the quick hits thanks to a friend who took the time to slap the two maps together with the past maps along with the residences of the incumbent legislators. KTOO reporter Andrew Kitchenman also has a good summary of the districts in this Twitter thread.

In Anchorage: Democratic Reps. Matt Claman, Zack Fields and Harriet Drummond are all in the same district now. Under version 1, Democratic Reps. Ivy Spohnholz and Liz Snyder would also share the same district. Under Version 2, it’d be Democratic Reps. Andy Josephson and Chris Tuck. For whatever reason, Republicans escape being paired into the same districts with the exception of Republican Reps. James Kaufman and Laddie Shaw under version 2. Both plans give us three empty seats that my layman’s eyeballing of it would probably lean Democratic but as with all things 2022: Who Really Knows. 

In Fairbanks: I’m frankly surprised that they didn’t try to get more creative with the pairings here in an effort to knock off either Reps. Adam Wool or Grier Hopkins. Across the board things look generally quite a bit more conservative (an inevitability given the numbers and the board’s makeup), but not bulletproofedly so. We don’t have Senate pairings, yet, but that would also add a layer of interest. Again with all things 2022: Who Really Knows. 

In the Mat-Su: The most striking thing is that it sure looks like Republican Sens. Mike Shower and Shelley Hughes would be in the same House District, but the great Mat-Su takeover looks to be a bit overstated. There’s not a lot here that’s wildly different. Rep. David Eastman’s district would extend all the way into Denali Borough while the eternal struggle between Delta Junction, Glenallen and eastern Mat-Su would no longer be Rep. George Rauscher’s problem. His district would be far less sprawling than it currently is under the proposals (Delta Junction and Glenallen would go over to the sprawling district represented currently by Rep. Mike Cronk, which would also include the Interior villages). 

Western/rural Alaska: Other than the unification of Interior villages into a single district, there’s not a lot here as far as a reorganization. 

Southeast: The most striking change in Southeast has to be the this: 

That’s right, the Alaska Redistricting Board has its very own version of the Kawasaki Finger! For those who didn’t arrive in Alaska to have one of your first major reporting beats being the interminable court battle over Alaska’s redistricting plan, the Kawasaki Finger was an effort to draw a little… finger out of Rep. Steve Thompson’s house district to cover what folks thought was then-Rep. Scott Kawasaki’s home.

The big problem here, though, was not only that it was clearly a violation of the requirements for districts to be compact but it also wasn’t actually Scott’s home, but his sisters… who folks seemed to be under the impression was his wife… 

Anyways, the courts struck that and much of the rest of the plan down. 

In the case of the Ortiz… omission, it drew the attention from Ketchikan teacher Peter Stanton who penned an excellent write-up about the board’s efforts to split up the island “race-based gerrymandering.” 

It apparently was a mistake, according to a statement added to his post: 

It has been brought to the Board’s attention that a few census blocks on the southern portion of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough were unintentionally omitted from the Board’s proposed plans adopted on Thursday, September 9. This was due to a software glitch and does not align with the Board’s stated intentions. Inclusion of those census blocks will necessitate more work by the Board which they will bring forward at the next scheduled meeting on Friday, September 17. The Board thanks the public for their prompt responses to this oversight and invites continued feedback on these initial Proposed Plans.

In the big picture: While a lot of the underhanded redistricting tactics have only become more powerful in the last decade, public access to the process has also been considerably expanded—crappy streaming aside. The tools of redistricting and understanding redistricting have been largely democratized in the last decade, making it far easier for the average person to see what’s going on. There are many other efforts underway to understand the draft plans and their potential impact on Alaskans’ representation in the Legislature and hopefully we’ll see them soon. Because while the tools are easier to use and more accessible than ever, the timeline is also far more compressed than it’s ever been. The board plans to have its draft done by Nov. 10. 

The fiscal ‘plan’

Oof, the less said about the Legislature, the fiscal plan and the dividend the better. With session set to expire next week and with the special session budget still in the Senate Finance Committee, time is fast running out for even that to get passed in time. While there are certainly the pieces on the table to cobble together a fiscal plan that would balance the budget while also paying out somewhat larger to much larger PFDs than what have recently been passed in previous years, the big problem is the question we’ve had since pretty much day one: Who pays? 

While it seems like Democrats and the populist-leaning, pro-PFD Republicans seem to agree that some kind of taxes should be on the table as long as it means bigger PFDs, the hitch is still Republicans from wealthier districts who oppose any and all taxes to pay for a PFD. Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich’s well-meaning proposal to cobble together tax credits, corporate income tax reform and fuel taxes—a sort of “I’m open to whatever changes you guys want” approach—was spiked by the Senate Resources Committee this week in one of the more stinging rebukes I’ve seen in a while. Leading the charge was none other than Sen. Natasha von Imhof, who suggested that perhaps ruining the state’s economy was Begich’s plan. 

Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee rolled out its alternative to the governors’ 50-50 PFD proposal with a 75-25 PFD proposal that would rely on a similar tax package as the one proposed by Begich. In a rather unusual twist, though, the debate in that committee was far, far, far, far, far more civil with quite a bit of discussion on potential changes and future work to do in consideration of the plan. An important part here was that chair Rep. Ivy Spohnholz and others made clear that if people want a larger dividend, then they need to figure out a way to pay for it. 

“I’m fairly flexible about what the final plan is but the final plan has to balance,” she said. “The challenge we have right now is the governor has not yet introduced a plan that balances. I could support a 50-50 split, if the governor was going to support enough revenue to fill in the gap that would be created by that, but that’s a massive amount of revenue.” 

Of course, the governor has not introduced any new revenue of any kind. Even his promised revenue bills of legalized gambling, corporate income taxes, streaming taxes and others are all no shows. And how about that fiscal plan tool that we were promised? 

Anyways, I’d expect a fourth special session. 

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