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We Build Alaska

The Sunday Minefield – January 21, 2024

The second session of the 33rd Alaska Legislature kicked off on Tuesday. Saying things started off loose is a bit of an understatement. First, the House Rules Committee – which rarely meets – juiced up a Senate bill for an internet subsidy for rural schools. Then, the House agreed to meet with the Senate in a joint session at 8 pm on Thursday to consider veto overrides. Then, the House Rules Committee met all day Saturday to hear public testimony on the school bill, and then moved it out of committee. It felt a lot more like the last week of session than the first.

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 to Juneau soon 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!

House Rules Committee loads up Senate school internet bill

The following is an excerpt from this week’s edition of the Alaska Political Report. You can click here for more information about the Political Report. A subscription is $1,299/year per organization. Discounted pricing is available for non-profits and government entities. Our coverage of the budget starts with the governor’s proposed budget, and we track everything in detail through the entire process. If you have any questions or would like to subscribe, please email jeff@akpoliticalreport.com.

On Wednesday, January 17, the House Rules Committee held a rather unusual meeting. The rules committee is essentially a committee in name only. The rules chair in each body decides when legislation is scheduled on the floor but they almost never make changes to a bill, so the committee rarely meets. The last time a House Rules Committee meeting was convened was May 2020 when the Legislature was addressing Covid funding from the federal government.

On Wednesday the committee took up Senate Bill 140, a relatively simple bill introduced last year by Bethel Democratic Sen. Lyman Hoffman to address the bandwidth level of subsidies for internet service in schools. The original bill increased the subsidy from 25Mbps to 100Mbps, bringing the speeds in line with new national standards tied to federal infrastructure funding.

At the close of the last session, the bill quickly passed the Senate without change then, when it was then taken up by the House Finance Committee, it was significantly expanded in scope through amendments. The finance committee added a $680 increase to the Base Student Allocation (BSA) (11%), increases to pupil transportation reimbursements, and a requirement for the Department of Education to work with the Department of Labor on monitoring high school graduates.

Yesterday’s actions by the House Rules Committee further expanded the scope of the bill. The committee added in provisions allowing the establishment of charter schools in school districts, added provisions for students who are deaf and hard of hearing, removed the sunset date for education tax credits/deductions, increased funding for correspondence programs by applying the special needs factor to correspondence funding, and altered the BSA increase by reducing it to $300 (5%). This effectively merges several priorities of GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy and House Republicans into the bill.

While the bill is still proposing to increase the BSA level in statute, this amount represents a roughly half-percent reduction from the level of BSA included in the current state budget (Dunleavy vetoed half of the one-time increase passed by the Legislature) and about 6% down from the effective BSA passed by the House last session (prior to veto). At first glance this may seem like an attempt to save state dollars, however the total estimated cost of SB140 with the additions is just over $191 million (that amount increased to over $210 million after the rules committee adopted more amendments on Saturday). 

After accounting for the $20 million in broadband subsidies, this is roughly the same amount as the $174 million cost of the $680 BSA increase passed by the Legislature last year. So, rather than reduce the cost of the bill passed by the House Finance Committee, the rules committee instead has reprioritized that funding from public school districts to private schools through the correspondence program and lump sum bonuses paid directly to teachers.

Normally this kind of significant adjustment to a bill’s content is reserved for the final hours of session when lawmakers are racing the clock to include legislation in any bill that has a chance of passing before midnight. It is far less common to see it happen on the second day of session.

If SB140 passes the full House, the Senate will be given the option to accept the changes, which seems unlikely. Or they can reject the changes, which results in the bill being sent to a conference committee – a relatively rare action on policy legislation like this. If the ballooning in scope kills the bill outright, it has the risk of leaving broadband standards for schools below modern levels.

The House Rules Committee has scheduled public testimony on the bill this Saturday at 10 am. We are told the committee plans on moving the bill quickly. We will be following closely and provide updates as they become available.

Neil Steininger, Budget Correspondent

Aftermath

After the House Rules Committee heard public testimony and adopted more amendments on the education bill, they passed it out of committee. It’s pretty wild how the rules committee added so much into a bill. The bill should be on the House floor this week. Look for the floor debate on that to get maximum loose. Representatives Bryce Edgmon (I – Dillingham), Neal Foster (D – Nome), and CJ McCormick (D – Bethel) – all members of the House majority – voted on Tuesday for a joint session to override Dunleavy’s veto of half the one-time schools funding increase. And then when it ended up happening on Thursday night, all three voted to override the veto (the override fell short by 12 votes).

They also represent rural areas that would benefit from the internet subsidy increase. Now that the bill has been so altered, that’s not going to get approved anytime soon. They can’t be too happy about their majority’s decision to add all these new education provisions into the bill. Edgmon and McCormick were in the room for most of the public testimony on Saturday, and neither one looked too happy. The majority will still need 21 votes to pass the bill, which could be a challenge. And even if they do pass it, the Senate is unlikely to agree with their changes – which will result in a very contentious conference committee. This is probably also the House majority’s answer to the Senate sending them a turducken budget at the end of session. Now the House majority are cooking up their own turducken! We are only on day five, folks!

Other Happenings 

There are a lot of new staff in the building. This is due to a combination of people retiring, finding new jobs, or just getting fed up with the general toxicity of the building (I don’t blame them). One of the new staffers if Jarret Freeman. Freeman came from New York and is now working for Representative Sarah Vance (R – Homer). He’s a cool guy and is really liking Alaska. A tip to everyone in the building: Jarret is not Senator David Wilson (R – Wasilla), Representative Stanley Wright (R – Anchorage), or Corey Allen Young. Yes, he’s been mistaken for all three.

Representative Dan Saddler (R – Eagle River) may need to start being referred to as “In Denial Dan.” He has been blacklisted from meeting with Dunleavy and from the third floor of the Capitol, but seems to be in denial about it. He was not in a meeting with Governor Dunleavy and the House majority earlier this week. Several sources reported that Dunleavy said if Saddler showed he would kick him out himself! Dunleavy was not happy about Saddler’s vote on Legislative Council to fund a lawsuit against him and for trying to block his salary increases last session. The situation is particularly loose because Saddler is the majority leader!

Commonwealth North has updated their “Budget Choices” website. You can make various choices to see how it affects the state budget. You can click here to check it out.

I have to give a major shout out to the City and Borough of Juneau. There was a major snow storm this week that dumped almost three feet of snow. Crews were out 24/7 plowing the roads. The roads were all cleared the next day. Having experienced the snow plowing failures in Anchorage, it was amazing being in a city where all the roads get plowed immediately. And it wasn’t just downtown, they got the Glacier Highway and the Valley too. And then days later, they had no parking signs over much of downtown so they could come clear out all the snow. Cars left in the road were towed away. The workers in Juneau really know what they are doing!

The filing period for the Anchorage mayoral election ends on Friday, January 26. So far, seven candidates have filed. Mayor Dave Bronson has still not officially filed.

Suzanne LaFrance had a bit of a SNAFU for her official filing press event. She seemed to have gotten it figured out.

Big shout out to the Sealaska Heritage Institute for turning our special feature, Sah Quah, into a book for their Box of Learning series!

This Week’s Loose Unit 

The following was written by Landmine co-owner Paxson Woelber, who insisted on writing this week’s Loose Unit section. It has not been altered or changed by me.

 

There were many worthy nominations for this week’s Loose Unit. First, there was the evening when political writer Jeff Landfield was thrown out of a Democratic fundraiser by Representative Sara Hannan (D – Juneau). According to Landfield, Hannan told him that all attendees, including staff, had to donate or leave. Later, Landfield speculated that Hannan had ejected him because he was wearing a Star of David shirt. In 2021, the Alaska Landmine reported that Hannan had claimed that Nazi hypothermia experiments had been “horrific” but had “produced results.” Hannan later apologized. Very loose.

Then there was the recent night when Jeff Landfield got into a screaming match with John Hendrix, the president and CEO of fossil fuel company Furie, at the Triangle bar in Juneau. Last year, a bill that would have given Furie a massive tax break was killed following reporting by the Landmine. Landfield claims that Hendrix approached him and “asked him what his problem was.” Landfield says he yelled at Hendrix, “Your gas field sucks, your lights are going out [ed: Furie’s gas field in Cook Inlet is called Kitchen Lights] because you’re fucking broke,” before calling the embattled executive a “motherfucker” and loudly declaring that he “doesn’t give a fuck” about Hendrix or Hendrix’s political power.

But one event this week really stood out and sealed the deal. This week’s Loose Unit is Jeff Landfield. On January 16, Landfield created a crude homemade sign and protested the Driftwood Hotel, in Juneau. Landfield, who had stayed in the Driftwood during session since 2019, was angered by management decisions made after a new owner took control of the hotel in February 2023. According to Landfield, the new owner failed to curtail loud late night folk music played at the hotel during the Juneau Folk Festival, and declined to honor discounted reservations for politicos made by the prior owner.

Most people would have taken the L and moved on. But not Landfield, who decided that the most worthy target for protest today is not the threat of a global conflict spiraling out of control, the loss of reproductive rights, or the rising threat authoritarianism, but rather his personal inability to receive reduced rates to stay at a dingy Juneau hotel with suspect carpets and minimally functional plumbing.

The protest was attended exclusively by Landfield, who promised that it would not be the last one. Maximum loose.

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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Alex Koplin
4 months ago

Always interesting and great info. The 33-16 vote on the veto override reported on X was actually 33-26. We still had a majority but not the ridiculous number of 45 or 2/3 for an appropriation override.

Akwhitty
4 months ago

So sorry your world is falling apart Paxon. When Trump gets in office it should get worse for you.

Tyler Renquist III
4 months ago
Reply to  Akwhitty

Satire is too much for the typical maga smooth brain.

Steve-O
4 months ago

That sign looks more like a cheap advertising sign, did Jeff run out of ink for the strike through line?