The Alaska Legislature trudged back into Juneau on Monday for the start of the fourth special session of the year with a mixture of unwillingness, uncertainty and tired political opportunism that has come to define this year’s deeply divided Legislature.
It stands to one of the least-productive endeavors in recent legislative memory, which is really saying something.
On the agenda is Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s largely detail-free demands for the Legislature to finally institute a lasting fiscal plan—underlined by the fact that he’s yet to truly put any support behind new revenues—and, of course, the very specific demand for the Legislature to dip into the state’s reserves for a second round of PFDs. With his re-election bid around the corner, the fight over the dividend has been a prime focus in recent state-sponsored advertising.
“I heard an ad on the radio today that said this is an important message from Gov. Dunleavy,” tweeted Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Adam Wool, an author of an income tax proposal, last week. “I figured it would be about the Covid crisis. But no, it was about the PFD of course and how to ‘protect it.’ Gimme a break, we lead the nation in Covid.”
Suffice it to say, there’s very little hope from pretty much any group that another 30 days on top of the 187 days spread across an extended regular session and three special sessions will produce any movement.
The significant sticking points are, well, pretty much everything. There’s deep divisions on the size of the dividend to the underlying need for new revenues—which gets hung up on the question of whether wealthy individuals and oil companies should pay a bigger share—to whether or not some portions should be enshrined in the constitution, a move that would require a nearly impossible supermajority in each chamber to approve. And that’s not to mention the whole backdrop of Alaska’s worst-in-the-nation status in the covid-19 pandemic, which was cited by House Speaker Louise Stutes along with the cost of conducting a special session when she asked the governor cancel the special session.
As if to put a fine point on the Legislature’s inability to find agreement, legislators can’t even agree on how often they should be meeting during the next 30 days.
With a nod to the pandemic and the fact that even under the best case scenario it would take several weeks of committee hearings to really hash out any sort of meaningful legislation, the House voted on a largely bipartisan basis Monday night to suspend the rules on how often floor sessions need to be held. Under the resolution, the Legislature would be able to head home for what had been anticipated to be hearings on the road system (Anchorage) with a return date of Oct. 12.
But the measure was not taken up in the Senate on Monday. The failure of the measure means the both the House and Senate will need to return on Friday in some form, a move that ensures legislators will continue to rack up travel costs.
The only group that seems particularly happy with the return to Juneau is the Dunleavy-aligned House minority Republicans, whose obstructionism nearly pulled the state into a shutdown earlier this year. Several members used the House’s special orders section to give lengthy speeches about how reaching a solution on the state’s fiscal crisis should actually be simple as well as a return to their favorite stomping grounds, espousing doubt and denialism on the covid-19 pandemic.
Rep. Ben Carpenter, a Soldotna Republican who made headlines early in the pandemic for comparing health precautions to the Holocaust, gave a special order where he complained that a doctor suggest he get vaccinated and then went on to call on the Legislature to pass expansive measures that would among other things force employees to keep unvaccinated people employed. He said it should take priority over the state’s fiscal crisis.
“We’ve replaced critical thinking with faith in science,” he said during the floor debate. “It seems very fitting in the waning months of this Legislature, we add to the call even though I know it’s going to jeopardize making some progress on the fiscal plan, we need to add to the call a patient’s bill of rights.”
Such a change would require Dunleavy to amend the call for the special session.
The House attempted to add a somewhat similar measure to a milquetoast measure aimed at making it easier for hospitals to staff up to meet the pandemic surge during the last special session. The measure would have required hospitals to grant pretty much free reign to the their facilities a designated visitor for each patient. It presented such a radical change that hospitals urged the Legislature to kill the bill, saying that the hiring issues (which were addressed by Dunleavy through executive action anyways) weren’t worth forever undermining the health care system.
Why it matters
The fourth special session looks to be one of the least productive endeavors the Legislature has undertaken in a long time. Beyond wasting everyone’s time, it’s also a nakedly political endeavor that Dunleavy will likely use in service of painting blame on his failure to deliver his promised mega dividends on the Legislature while also building the case for a constitutional convention that would throw wide open the doors on massive changes to how Alaska operates.