This week brought the end of the third special session of the year and a bit of maneuvering by the House and Senate Finance Committee made sure the Legislature had something to show for the last 30 days. By holding the budget to the final day of the special session and canceling the day’s House floor session, the two effectively cut off any last-minute attempt in the Senate to boost the PFD above the $1,100 level. For all governor’s attempts at leveraging and browbeating the Legislature into passing a larger dividend, turns out it’s still pretty hard to get one over on Senate Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Bert Stedman and company. But that doesn’t mean the governor can’t keep trying. Before the third special session was even technically over, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced a fourth special session with little detail except for it’ll be about “an act or acts related to a fiscal plan” and to “get the rest” of the large dividend he promised all the way back in 2018.
If you listen closely, you could’ve probably heard a loud groan coming from Juneau.
While there’s certainly been some progress on a fiscal plan over the past month, it’s increasingly clear that the governor’s refusal to meaningfully engage on the debate—other than popping in to occasionally blow things up with impossible demands of first giving him what he wants (a big PFD and a public vote on big PFDs) and for you to trust that he simply won’t give another go at his Donna Arduin-style budget—then there’s just not a lot of progress to be made here. And with just two weeks between then and now, there’s also not a lot of time for cooler heads to prevail from high-stakes fights we’ve just been through.
I think that right now the chances are high that the Legislature may just immediately gavel out or just let the session simmer with the occasional hearing and plenty of technical floor sessions. Without real leadership, everyone’s digging in on the defensive against the worst outcome whether it be taxes, cuts or general financial ruin.
To me, this whole thing smacks of political opportunism—an opportunity to cement this picture of the Legislature as a dysfunctional body (while overlooking your outsized role in creating that dysfunction) heading into the 2022 election. And as if to put a fine point on the whole thing, several Dunleavy-aligned Republicans were not at all shy about raising the specter of a constitutional convention if they didn’t get their way on the dividend. These are all cudgels—along with redistricting—that they hope will finally put an end to that pesky bipartisan coalition in the House.
And, fine, that’s a goal, but it’s a goal that serves political agendas far more than it serves a greater agenda of building an Alaska with opportunity and equity. The governor and his allies are seeking to capitalize on the chaos they’ve sown, and for what? After looking back on three years in office, there’s not a heckuva lot more than a bunch of shady sole-source contracts and boneheaded lawsuits to show for it. Will the big PFDs be worth all this continued fighting?
Listen to enough legislative hearings—well, mostly in the House Ways and Means Committee—and you’ll hear a deep and profound sense of exhaustion when it comes to the stalemate we’ve effectively reached on the state’s fiscal plan. Aside from those who are fully dedicated to the status quo, there’s a growing sense of “I couldn’t care less about the specifics of the plan—whether it be taxes, the size of the PFD or even cuts—as long as we just have one that’s based in reality” on both sides of the aisle. There’s an understanding that there’s a cost to uncertainty, economic hits from businesses holding off from investing and from the continuing exodus of Alaskans. The state’s ongoing decline in population was one of the things that ISER Director Ralph Townsend warned the Legislature about when he spoke with them earlier this year, warning that the declining population would put Alaska on the backfoot when it comes to any economic recovery and growth.
We’ve heard some Republicans signal willingness to consider taxes to cover the gap created by paying out larger dividends as long as there’s some guarantees about spending and some Democrats signal willingness to overspend the state’s savings in the service of larger dividends as long as there’s some guarantees about new revenue to ensure cuts aren’t the only tool used to balance the budget.
But as these conversations have become more tangible, we’ve seen a reflexive opposition from legislators keenly interested in defending the status quo that’s largely favored the wealthy—after all the biggest beneficiaries of the financial realities that made the PFD program possible are wealthy Alaskans who saw their bottom line shift by far more than the annual dividend payout thanks to the repeal of the income tax—and the oil companies. While there’s movement around the edges, it’s this group that also poses a significant hurdle to resolving the state’s financial picture once and for all.
Perhaps one of the most telling moments from the entirety of the special session was a hearing in the House Finance Committee on House Bill 189, a revenue bill by the House Ways and Means Committee, this week (geeze, it feels like a lifetime ago). Presented by Ways and Means Committee chair Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, the bill would effectively revive with education head tax that Alaska had in place until 1980 with a bit of progressivity baked in, ranging from $25 on the low end to capping at $600 for folks making $120,000 or more. It’s about as modest a proposal as you could get, but, oh, asked Anchorage Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen, won’t someone please think of the upper-class?!?
“Somebody who is making $30,000 a year is paying substantially less in federal income taxes than a person making $120,000 a year,” she said during questions on the bill this week, “and, additionally, somebody who is making $120,000 a year is also probably paying substantially more property taxes, which does fund a very large portion of our education, so it does seem to be a growing burden the upper- and middle-class Alaskans where there are no other additional services and help available.”
Rasmussen is far from the only legislator to be fretting over the status of the wealthy/oil companies as the state looks for ways to balance the books. Just listen to some of the Senate Resources Committee hearings of late and you’ll see just how massive a lift new revenue is going to be.
This reflexive opposition—which is not limited to those defending the wealth and oil companies, it’s just the most apparent—means that Alaska’s financial woes and uncertainty will continue to drag on and drag down the state.
Now for the pandemic
And, you know what? All of this applies to the pandemic. It’s become so mired in politics that the one thing we can know for sure is that it’s not going to be going away anytime soon. With a governor who’s singularly focused on his re-election chances (why he’d want to keep doing this job is a question for another time) and a mayor of Anchorage who seems to really be a true believer of the nonsense he spews, Alaska’s quickly vaulting to the top of all metrics of the pandemic.
In the latest article covering the steady march of new records, the Anchorage Daily News’ Annie Berman summed up the situation well: “Few states have surpassed their winter-level surges the way Alaska has in recent weeks. Of those that have, fewer have overwhelmed their hospitals to the crisis levels Alaska is now experiencing. … After leading U.S. states in vaccinations per capita earlier this year, Alaska on Friday ranked 32nd.”
While Alaska had the benefit of its remoteness, its geographic isolation and a strong response driven by the state’s tribal health care system, much of that has been erased by the extraordinarily contagious delta variant. The longer the state and Anchorage drag their heels on truly changing the curve of the pandemic, the longer we can expect it to last.
But, hey, at least the governor got to file another lawsuit against Biden.
Speedrunning your term
Speaking of Anchorage, It’s been another banner week for Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson. He met the Anchorage Assembly’s request to, please, do something to actively slow the spread of the covid-19 by telling them to get bent; he fired a whistleblower for raising concerns about the hiring of Jim Winegarner and then gave Winegarner the whistleblower’s job; in the middle of a pandemic that is straining first responders to the brink, he’s announced that he will pinch between $75,000 and $125,000 out of the fire department’s overtime budget (though he’s leaving Eagle River’s stations alone); and the city’s rushed change of operators at the Sullivan Arena shelter looks to be going about as expected when you boot the operator and bring in a new year-old for-profit operator with no formal handover or transition plan. Oh, and last week folks dug up an 2013 article where Bronson wrote “Adolph Hitler was not always a tyrant.”
And, sure, this all probably raises the question of “So, when do we start looking at recalling this guy?” Well, first, under state law you can’t kick off a recall until someone’s been in office for 120 days, which would open the doors at the end of October. And given the pretty expansive court rulings on what can constitute a recall, it’s likely not going to be hard to find something from this week alone that can justify the “If it looks like it would be a violation of law, then that’s good enough for us” standard set by the courts in the Recall Dunleavy effort.
I’m of two minds on what I’d expect to be the inevitable effort to cut Bronson’s term short:
- On the one hand, recalls are resource-intensive endeavors that have not yet panned out in Alaska (for a lot of complicated reasons) with a bunch of high-stakes assembly races that will be on the ballot in April of next year as well as the recall of one on Oct. 26 (the registration deadline for that election is on Sept. 26). Those seats have and are critical to serving as a check on Bronson.
- Which brings me to the other hand of the recall question. What better rallying cry against Bronson than a recall? And even if it doesn’t work, it serves as an outlet and rallying cry that can be translated into greater investment in the assembly races themselves. Just look at how scared Dunleavy has been running, after all.
And, besides, Bronson is already well underway with that campaign, cultivating a fine patina of grievance with his “the Left or the assembly at least” that he surely hopes to translate into another fervent wave for the next election.
There’s rumblings that some in the House and Senate would very much like to reorganize things… which since when has there not been talk about how things are on the brink of a major reorganization? The latest rumblings are that Rep. Geran Tarr, the Anchorage Democrat who started session as a solo member over an apparent dispute with committee assignments, is floating the idea of a reorganization that would hand over the keys to the… far-right Republicans?
Exactly what would be won from it other than recreating the House in the image of Sen. Lora Reinbold’s Judiciary Committee—giving free reign for committees to gin up whatever voting rights restrictions, anti-abortion measures, anti-trans bills and anti-vaccine measures they’d like—would certainly be a look for a Democrat who already doesn’t have a load of allies. But, hey, the Alaska Redistricting Board is going all out on dismantling the House Bipartisan Coalition, so I guess why wait?
As Jeff Landfield put it in a tweet: “unbelievable scenario.”
And earlier this year, there was a decent amount of talk about Reps. Steve Thompson and Bart LeBon potentially joining the House Majority Coalition after the shitshow that was the end of the regular session when their colleagues in the minority nearly pushed the state over the cliff over the dividend. I’d still give that a greater chance of happening than the aforementioned plan, but then again there’s been a lot of unbelievable scenarios in Alaska politics as of late.