Friday in the Sun (Dec. 17): The Drunken Monkey edition

Friday in the Sun is here

Welcome to the latest edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly-ish, Friday-ish column that’s a holdover of a better time when political gossip and innuendo flowed like so much oil. As always, speculating and prognosticating on the Alaska political landscape is best treated like a recreational activity or, at the very least, with a stiff beverage in hand.

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‘Like a bunch of drunken monkeys’

Gov. Mike Dunleavy unveiled his initial budget proposal for the 2022 legislative session to generally positive headlines about how at long last the state won’t be spending from savings. It might lead one to believe that Dunleavy has finally done what everyone else couldn’t and solved the state’s structural budget problems all while giving minor spending increases to areas that he’s cut in recent years and an increase to the PFD payout to the 50/50 level he’s now supporting (about $2,500). Just don’t look behind the curtain, please!

It’s a budget obviously aimed at an election year, hoping to erase the memories of the governor’s politically disastrous first-year budget with a 180-degree shift to proposals to pay school bond debt, maintain K-12 Education spending, funding for the ferry system and a slight increase to the state funding for the University of Alaska instead of the planned $20 million cut. On a very practical level, it’s hard to complain about the spending proposals so much so that Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich quipped to KTUU: “One colleague asked me today, ‘Has the governor changed parties?’”

Frankly, it looks a lot like the kind of budget I would’ve imagined his brother, Mark Begich, would’ve been proposing at about this time. After all, the 50/50 PFD was Begich’s idea.

Jesting aside, the big hitch with everything is, of course, the fact that this apparently balanced budget balances with a significant influx of one-time federal dollars, optimistic oil revenue projections, an assumption that the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation will continue on its roll after firing Angela Rodell and taking on $310 million in general obligation bond debt.

Sure, it’s like saying you’ve balanced your budget when you’ve got a check from your parents—who you’re also suing for overreach—and $310 million on the credit card.

The proposal has, expectedly, drawn out the sort of hand wringing that we’ve come to expect with legislators commenting about how there’s nothing fundamentally different about the state’s underlying structural budget deficit and how tough decisions still actually need to be made. They’re all sound and appropriate responses to the proposal, but let’s see what Senate Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Bert Stedman had to tell KTOO about it:

“It appears to me that they’ve spent all the funds they can get their hands on. Like a bunch of drunken monkeys putting a budget together in a case of euphoria.”

It’s important to keep in mind that the Legislature has increasingly soured on Gov. Dunleavy’s handling of the budget, arguing that the administration has bent numbers and projections to conveniently fit their narrative and political goals. Towards the end of the special sessions this year, Stedman was simply not willing to choke down one more bit of tripe from the administration and even suggested that the Legislature may simply ignore the governor’s budget proposal and start out with their own.

While this budget might be relatively good news for fans of government services and 50/50 dividends (which is notably not full dividends), it’s setting the stage for considerable problems down the line. There might be a minor surplus this year, but the combination of increased spending and replacing state dollars with a combination of federal dollars and bond debt means that the deficits in future years will be that much bigger. Instead of using the federal relief dollars as a bridge down the fiscal cliff, Dunleavy’s building a ramp.

If the Legislature signs off on this budget—which is not going to happen—it’ll leave a big problem for whoever takes over the reins in 2022. Either they’ll need to figure out where the revenue would come from to meet the new spending or it’ll be justification for cuts that are that much deeper.

In the bigger political picture, things are set to be just as messy as they’ve always been. The misleading narrative surrounding the budget that’s irked the Legislature is almost assuredly going to continue—“I’ve proposed a balanced budget that does everything! Why won’t the Legislature approve it?!? Also, let’s have a constitutional convention while we’re at it!”—and the Legislature’s wonky “Well, actually” approach that’s based heavily in numbers and unpleasant solutions will continue to struggle outside the halls of the Legislature.

Redistricting update

I missed it in Wednesday’s newsletter, but one of the major concerns about the Alaska Redistricting Board’s newly formed litigation subcommittee is that conservative members John Binkley and Budd Simpson may attempt to intentionally delay and prolong the legal battles specifically to push the fight beyond the point of no return for the 2022 election cycle. A wholesale rewrite of the maps is unlikely given the amount of time between now and the candidate filing deadline, but it’s the hope of the folks who’ve filed the lawsuit challenging the Anchorage-area Senate pairings that the change can be done ahead of the 2022 election because, after all, the current Senate pairings were generated and approved in a matter of hours.

“Any delay on the part of the board to slow down the litigation process, I’m going to be watching for as a board member,” Borromeo said following the formation of the subcommittee.

It’s looking like her concerns are warranted, too.

In a filing from the plaintiffs challenging the Anchorage-area Senate pairings, the group is seeking to amend their complaint and drop the allegations that the maps are a violation of federal law. The filing, a copy of which was provided to me this week, is pretty straightforward:

“Shortly after the application was filed, the board, through its attorney, notified plaintiffs it would seek removal to federal court if plaintiffs did not amend the application to remove its reference to a violation of the U.S. Constitution. … Despite plaintiffs’ attempt to explain that the removal action was unsupported by both federal and state law and wholly without merit, the Board demanded Plaintiffs amend the Application by close of court on December 13, 2021, or face a removal action by the Board within the week.”

Basically put, the Alaska Redistricting Board was threatening to try to punt the Anchorage pairing lawsuit to federal court, a prospect that would likely slow the one challenge that has a chance of resulting in changes ahead of the 2022 election. Interestingly, the lawsuit indicates that no such similar challenge was made against the lawsuit challenging the Mat-Su maps, which also included the same claim of violation the U.S. Constitution but is being run by Republican groups.

“The consequences of the board’s threatened action, to plaintiffs, the other parties and the public as a whole pose too grave a risk for plaintiffs to defy the board’s demand,” explained the motion. “A removal action by the board, even if unsuccessful, would effectively exclude plaintiffs from participation in the consolidated redistricting litigation contemplated by this court. Plaintiffs’ exclusion from the preliminary stages of this action would have devastating impacts on plaintiffs’ constitutionally guaranteed rights to participate in the process and cause delay and confusion.”

Delay and confusion seems about right.

Drip, drip, drip

Anchorage Mayor Mike Bronson and crew are putting on a masterclass in dragging out a story into an unending series of bad press. After initially issuing a blanket denial of the allegations raised by the Alaska Landmine last weekend, the administration fessed up to cutting off the fluoride on Tuesday with a statement riddled with gaps and unanswered questions that was almost immediately called bullshit by the traditional press and has resulted in yet another string of appearances for Bronson in the national press.

The Bronson administration seems to still be in deflect mode with claims that have ricocheted between the whole ordeal not being that big of a deal to it being entirety the fault of the staff at the water treatment plant. A key piece of the story is that there was “information provided” to the Bronson administration that shutting off the fluoride wasn’t a violation of the municipal charter or state and federal law, and that they only found out later that it was a violation of municipal code.

But even that claim—which would require us to believe that no one in the Bronson administration is interested or capable of opening up the municipal code on their phone and searching “fluoride”—is undercut by the latest set of newly obtained emails courtesy of the Alaska Landmine:

“It was explained to Mayor Bronson that Municipal Charter directs the AWWU water plans to dose fluoride.”

And just like that another piece of the mayor’s explanation goes crumbling down. At this point, setting the whole fluoride thing aside (a very conspiratorial thing at that), the whole ordeal sheds quite a bit of light on the kind of government that Bronson is running. Not only are they willing to meddle with the city’s water supply but they’re willing to fabricate what is sure looking like a flat-out lie about it.

Legislator pay

The State Officers Compensation Commission met this week to consider a proposal that would put a hard cap on legislators’ per diem payments while increasing their underlying pay. On average, the changes would lead to a reduction in legislator compensation from about $85,000—which is the $50,400 base salary and an average annual per diem payment of $35,602—to either $79,500 ($74,500 plus $5,000 in expenses) or $62,400 ($50,400 with $12,000 in expenses). In all, it seems like a good idea to put a hard cap on per diem payments that have reached mind-boggling figures in recent years as the sessions on and on.

Just where the number lands will be a big point of contention, though. Lee Cruise, Dunleavy’s public appointee, came out firing throughout the meeting, arguing that, essentially, legislators shouldn’t receive any special treatment for a job that has no requirements.

“What I’m saying is we do not need these people to live well, we need them to live. The general public lives, they don’t live well,” he said. “You’re saying they can’t make ends meet? Maybe that’s from personal choices. $50,000 is very good money for working 120 days out of the year.”

Former Anchorage Sen. Johnny Ellis argued in favor of the higher number, arguing that pay hasn’t kept up since it was last increased in 2010. Cruise was unconvinced about the whole thing, laying on the anti-legislator ire pretty thick.

They’ll be taking public testimony on the decision on Jan. 4.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is just what party is responsible for keeping the Legislature going throughout the year. It wasn’t the majority of legislators, no, but the faction of the House Republican minority and Gov. Dunleavy who pushed the state to the brink of shutdown and into the long-running special sessions.

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