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We Build Alaska

The Sunday Minefield – April 28, 2024

The annual legislative skits was held last night in Juneau at Centennial Hall. And they did not disappoint! Just over two weeks remain until the constitutional 121-day session limit, and a lot remains to be done. The major issue is the budget, but education and energy priorities also remain. The House Rules Committee held a weird meeting on Monday (4/22/2024) that resulted in some strange outcomes. And ballots for the Anchorage mayoral run-off between Mayor Dave Bronson and Suzanne LaFrance go out in the mail this week.

A friendly message and reminder to all our readers. The Landmine is made possible by myself and a team of awesome Alaskans. I am back in Juneau for my sixth session in a row reporting on the Legislature. If you enjoy the content we provide, please consider making a one time or recurring monthly donation. You can click here to donate. We have a donation system that makes it super easy. We would really appreciate it. And thanks to everyone who has been supportive!

Budget Update

The Senate Finance Committee rolled out their second committee substitute for the operating budget before unanimously passing it out of the committee. It will be heard this week on the Senate floor and probably passed out Wednesday or Thursday. It will then go back to the House, who will reject the Senate’s changes, resulting in a conference committee.

The conferees from the House side will be interesting. Representative Neal Foster (D – Nome), a finance-co-chair and strong supporter of a full dividend, has said he does not want to be on the conference committee. Representative DeLena Johnson (R – Palmer), the operating budget co-chair, will definitely be a conferee. Along with one minority member. It’s unclear if Representative Bryce Edgmon (I – Dillingham), the other finance co-chair, will be on the conference committee. Edgmon is not in favor of a large dividend, so the majority may put either Representative Mike Cronk (R – Tok/Northway) or Representative Frank Tomaszewski (R – Fairbanks) on it. I’ve even heard Representative Craig Johnson (R – Anchorage), the rules chair who is not on the finance committee, may be appointed. Ultimately, House Speaker Cathy Tilton (R – Wasilla) decides who the conferees are.

Here are some of the Senate’s changes to the operating budget, courtesy of the Alaska Political Report:

  • Eagle River Republican Sen. Kelly Merrick carried an amendment to add $4 million for the Anchorage homeless shelter that was included in the House budget. This amendment passed the committee, meaning this item is likely to survive the floor and not be subject to conference committee.
  • The committee made $10 million of UGF funding for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute a base budget increment rather than one-time funding. They also flagged this funding as a match to industry contributions
  • $12.5 million UGF in distributions to school districts were added
    • $7.3 million UGF to cover increased costs in pupil transportation
    • $5.2 million UGF for K-3 student reading assistance
  • $500,000 UGF for transport of Mt. Edgecumbe students to return home on holidays
    • Mt. Edgecumbe is the state-run boarding school in Sitka
  • $7.5 million UGF was added for home and place-based child care centers
  • The scope of the funding for elimination of congenital syphilis was expanded to include efforts to eliminate tuberculosis
    • Alaska has the highest rate of tuberculosis in the nation, by a huge margin. 13.1 cases per 100,000 residents compared to the national average of 2.5
    • Rates for congenital syphilis are also poor, 128.1 per 100,000 births compared to a national average of 102.5
  • Funding for Federally Qualified Health Centers, $15 million UGF, was removed from the Medicaid budget
    • The committee had a hearing on the subject and determined that there was not enough information to determine the amount needed. The Department of Health is currently conducting a review and audit of the issue and this will likely be in front of the finance committees next year
  • $7.5 million UGF matching $7.5 million Fed was added to increase reimbursement rates for home and community-based service providers
  • Throughout the budget, appropriations were adjusted to reference facility maintenance and operations to align budget language with statutory requirements
    • Statute requires the state to separately budget the cost of facility maintenance and operations. In most state agencies there has historically been a budget component titled “State Facilities Rent” which was partially intended to serve this purpose
    • Many of these appropriations have not fully shown the amount required for rent and maintenance of facilities occupied by a given agency. During the years of fiscal constraint, routine facility maintenance has been relegated to deferred maintenance capital appropriations or use of funds made available due to cost underruns in state programs.
    • This name change, alongside associated intent language, appears to be an effort toward more transparency and focus on facility maintenance funding

The capital budget, meanwhile, is working its way through the House Finance Committee. The plan for the capital budget is for the House to includes their additions, then send it back to the Senate for concurrence.

Many of the senators want to be done early so they can get home for Mother’s Day (5/12/2024). There is a chance the Senate could vote to adopt the conference committee report for the operating budget by the Friday before Mother’s Day, and then adjourn early Saturday morning. This would give them enough time to adjourn sine die and not have to come back before the constitutional session limit on May 15. (The constitution mandates each body must hold a floor session every fourth day during session.) But unless the have a deal with the House, it’s not likely they would adjourn under them as both bodies have been getting along fairly well this session.

The other problem with adjourning early is there are still a lot of bills floating around. There are different priorities between each body on education and energy, but both basically agree something needs to happen with the correspondence program as a result of the court ruling, as well as some energy related priorities for Cook Inlet and the railbellt. Unless a lot of bills get passed out of the House this week, my bet is the session goes until the constitutional limit, which is May 15.

Other Happenings 

The House Rules Committee held a rare meeting on Monday evening. Without getting in the weeds, they tried stuffing a bill dealing with property tax assessments from Representative Frank Tomaszewski into one of Senator Forrest Dunbar’s (D – Anchorage) bills that is in the House. They tried doing the exact same thing last May in the House Finance Committee, but failed. Anyhoo, they had not really done their homework and they whole thing fell apart. Representative Jesse Sumner (R – Wasilla), a majority member who seemed unaware of the move, commented how bad of an idea he thought Tomaszewski’s bill is. The amendment ended up being withdrawn. They also undid an amendment to a bill that raised the age of consent in Alaska to 18 from 16. Representative Andrew Gray (D – Anchorage) got the amendment passed on the floor last week, but it was hand written. The majority said it had problems. I’m sure it will be added again when the bill goes back on the floor.

I was pretty slammed this week working on this article, “Permanent Fund board member set up meetings between money managers and her billionaire father, records show.” Through a source, I obtained a series of internal emails from Permanent Fund executives detailing how Ellie Rubenstein, the vice-chair of the Board of Trustees, setup meetings with her billionaire father David Rubenstein, as well as fund managers who are investors in her private equity fund, Manna Tree. The emails reveal major conflicts of interest. I talk a lot about the numerous problems this state faces. But despite all of them, and there are many, the Permanent Fund has always managed to stay above politics and scandal. However, in the last several years it has, unfortunately, been subject to both. Alaskans should all be concerned about the politicization of our Permanent Fund. It provides more than $3 billion a year in funding for the government, and has paid out dividends for decades. We can’t afford to fuck this up.

Legislative skits was held last night at Centennial Hall in Juneau. They were really awesome this year! I have two takeaways. One, I love that they decided to take off the woke limits and do some really funny stuff. And two, Josiphiah Mason, known as Jojo, absolutely stole the show! Jojo used to be a page but now works for Representative Stanley Wright (R – Anchorage). He sang several songs as part of the skits and just killed it. I felt like I was at a paid concert. He was so good he got a standing ovation! I have never seen that at skits. My man needs to go on American Idol.

This Week’s Loose Unit 

Between the loose House Rules Committee meeting and Ellie Rubenstein playing fast and loose with the Permanent Fund, there were many good candidates this week. But an exchange in the House Finance Committee made this week’s designee clear. This week’s Loose Unit is Representative Frank Tomaszewski (R – Fairbanks).

On Thursday (4/25/2024) the committee was hearing Representative Tom McKay’s (R – Anchorage) education bill. Tomaszewski commented about the poor outcomes in many of Alaska’s public schools. Representative Andy Josephson (D – Anchorage) commented that some people “get satisfaction about how much public schools are struggling” and concluded with, “I’m frustrated by the tone which seems to take some satisfaction out of the struggles…”

But before Josephson could finish, Tomaszewski loudly said, “Are you talking to me?!” To which Josephson replied, “Yes I am, representative.” It was super loose.

This promoted Reprersentive Will Stapp (R – Fairbanks) to ask for an at ease. I think they should have kept going because of how spun up Tomaszewski was, but Representative Neal Foster (D – Nome) obliged, and then ended the hearing on that bill. Classic Loose Unit behavior. The next few weeks are sure to be hyper loose as tensions are coming to a boil!

If you have a nomination for this week’s Loose Unit, or if you have any political news, stories or gossip (or any old pics of politicians or public officials) please email me at jeff@alaskalandmine.com.

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