First off, I want to give credit to credit to Scott McCrea for the title of this article.
If you were writing a book about current politics in Alaska, what would the title be? Borrowing from a term often used by @alaskalandmine, I’m going with “Fear and Looseness in Juneau.”
— Scott McCrea (@sjmccrea) July 26, 2019
There’s loose, and then there’s Juneau-this-week loose. Between all the House and Senate bills, the ferry strike, another credit downgrade, and Governor Mike Dunleavy (R – Alaska) being in Aspen, it seems like it could all be a movie. But it’s not a movie, it’s reality.
If it all seems very confusing, at least know that you’re not alone. Some of the confusion is by design and some of it is just a product of the gridlock and emotions in Juneau.
Most of the public have no way to understand what’s happening down here. A lot of the people in the building don’t even understand it. Are we getting a $1,600 PFD or a $3,000 PFD? Will Dunleavy’s vetoes be undone? Will the capital budget be funded? Will University of Alaska students get their performance scholarships? Will rural residents get their power cost equalization funds so they can afford their energy bills this winter? Short answer to all of those questions: who the hell knows.
The Senate passed SB 2002 19-0, which funds the capital budget, the crime bill, and reverses the sweep of multiple accounts. The House passed SB 2002, but the 3/4 vote to access the Constitutional Budget Reserve to actually fund the programs in the bill failed by one vote, leaving us with a hollow capital budget…again. They tried twice – the first vote was 25-8, with 7 members excused, all from the House Minority. The second vote was 29-7, with 4 members excused. Also all House Minority members. We saw some House Minority members change their vote to access the CBR, which many of them received praise for. Even though the CBR vote didn’t pass, it was forward progress to get some minority members to vote in the affirmative. It shows that they are listening to the thousands of Alaskans who have showed up to testify about the budget.
There is one more chance to pass this on Monday. They can rescind their previous action on SB 2002 and vote again. If they don’t get the 30 votes, the bill is dead and the whole thing will need to start over. Between funding the capital budget, including federal matching funds, and reversing the sweep of funds like Power Cost Equalization, we are talking about billions of dollars hanging in the balance. Billions. Also, is there a lower credit rating than ‘negative’? Because if there is, continuing the State down this path of fiscal chaos will earn us that badge of dishonor.
Then there is HB 2001. This started off as a dividend bill, but in classic legislative fashion, an amendment actually removed the dividend from the bill. Now, it is just a bill that restores about 75% of the vetoes that Dunleavy made. The House Minority said they were shocked to see the amendment on their desks the morning of the vote. The Majority said it was to separate the PFD issue from other appropriations. The day before, there were negotiations and some hoped a deal would emerge. It turned out to be wishful thinking. This bill passed the House 21-10, with 9 members excused, 7 Minority and 2 Majority. It’s now in the Senate, where they are making their own changes to the bill.
Even if it passes the Senate, Dunleavy will probably veto it all again. Then the question will be does the Legislature have the 45 votes to override it? Maybe. At least they won’t be meeting in two places at once if that vote happens. This means that those who dodged voting on the veto overrides before because they were at the pretend session in Wasilla will have the opportunity to cast their vote for restoring funding to the University of Alaska, restoring the earned scholarships for Alaska’s best and brightest students, fulfilling the state’s commitments to our seniors, and many other programs in statute.
And now to HB 2003, the new PFD bill. HB 2003 would set the PFD at $1,600, but that is contingent on the CBR reverse sweep, which takes a 3/4 vote, or 30 votes. If that does not happen, the PFD would be approximately $1,336 because of the structured draw of the Permanent Fund. The extra $264 comes from the Statutory Budget Reserve, which was swept. Still confused? Good. Take a number. This passed the House yesterday 22-12, with 6 members excused, all House Minority members. It’s now in the Senate. Get ready for loose.
Juneau is spilling over with confused chaos. People are tired. No one wants to be here. So why is this all happening? Here is my take. The House is extremely fractured, especially the House Minority. Several members of the Minority voted for the capital budget and to reverse the sweep. Speaker Bryce Edgmon (I – Dillingham) is in a real tough spot. For him to negotiate or talk to the members of the Minority, he needs to go through the Minority Leader, Representative Lance Pruitt (R – Anchorage). Pruitt’s wife, Mary Ann Pruitt, is Governor Dunleavy’s Communications Director. So whatever he discusses with the one Pruitt will go to the other, and then to the Governor and his chief of staff, the other Governor, Tuckerman Babcock.
If the House Majority had been more inclusive to the Minority during the session, maybe things would be better. But that is easier said than done considering the circumstances. Also, Lance and Mary Ann have been married for longer than either of them have been in their respective political positions, so perhaps the Governor hiring someone like Mary Ann, who has such a glaring conflict of interest, was part of the back-channel plan all along to ensure a lack of trust and communication in the House. We call that a BOGO – buy one, get one.
Senate President Cathy Giessel (R – Anchorage) has surprised a lot of people with her leadership in the Senate. Most believe she has been fair to and inclusive with the Senate Minority. The Senate has voted unanimously or almost unanimously on many big votes. But she has taken flack from some of her members, who have publicly attacked her. The Senate is not as fractured as the House, but it’s also not kumbaya over there either. It will be interesting to see what happens in the Senate with all the bills the House passed this week. They won’t just pass them as they are, they will alter them. Which will be sure to create more problems.
Then there is Governor Dunleavy, who continues to demand a “full” $3,000 PFD. This is essentially the crux of this mess. Where was he most of this week while the Legislature was trying to figure this out? In Aspen at a retreat for the Republican Governors Association. His legislative director – who is typically the lead person to communicate and negotiate with the Legislature on behalf of the Governor – is on a vacation in the Cayman Islands. And the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget is in London at her graduation. Donna Arduin and Ben Stevens are around, but Arduin has never met with House leadership and it’s unclear what role Stevens has in all of this. Many legislators are frustrated with what they perceive to be a lack of leadership.
Leadership is important. And in Juneau and beyond, many people across the political spectrum feel a profound lack of leadership in Alaska. I have spoken with many people who have been around Alaska politics for a long time. Every one of them agrees things have never been this bad. One person told me,”If we take what’s happening now, and compare it to the next worst time, you would have a hard time measuring the distance between the two.”
I would love to end this by saying something like “Things can only get better” or “I’m optimistic everything will get resolved.” But I don’t believe either of those things are true. Alaska desperately needs leadership right now. Will someone step up and lead? Or will the status quo continue?