A divided Legislature stumbles once again

Can the Legislature get a budget passed and/or a covid bill passed? Reply hazy, try again later.

Good morning, Alaska! There’s less than 48 hours left in the third special session of the year and the door’s closing fast for any resolution to anything. At least football (and thus fantasy football) is back!

In this edition: The latest on the covid-19 bill, the budget bill and the exhaustion of it all. Oh, and the reading list.

A step forward and a step back

A weekend and a stop with the House Health and Social Services Committee later and the governor’s hospital staffing bill no longer contains the slate of anti-vaccine amendments added by the Senate last week, which was the focus of much of the ire in the last edition of this newsletter. As it stands, the bill is pretty much back to the middling bill it was that provides hospitals and other health care providers to hire up a bit easier without any actual measures directly targeted at the bill’s stated purpose of creating “mitigation measures that enhance the state's ongoing efforts to reduce the spread of” covid-19. At least the version that arrived on the House floor on Sunday doesn’t make actively make it worse, but that didn’t stop far-right Republicans (and occasionally Anchorage Democratic Rep. Chris Tuck, a dependable vote against vaccines) from trying. The House was able to vote down all but one of the proposed amendments, including one that would have injected anti-abortion politics in to the bill by adding Plan B to the list of things that couldn’t be prescribed by a telemedicine visit.

But one amendment did get through, and that appears to be a problem.

On a 20-16 vote, the House voted to add in a patient’s right to have a support person with them throughout the duration of their stay in the hospital with almost no limitations on when that person can be present. So, yep, at a time when the hospitals are overworked and understaffed, the House bill would be adding a new headache for hospitals and nursing homes to handle. And like in the Senate, the addition of the amendment looked to be enough to sour several Democrats and doom passage of the bill (especially because it looks like those provisions would be a permanent change forever altering how hospitals in Alaska handle patient and family access). But unlike the Senate, skeptical members in the House cannot count on the other chamber to clean up the bill in committee. If passed with the provisions, the bill would head to a concurrence vote on whether to accept the Senate version with the anti-vaccine loopholes, the House version with the forever hospital changes or to send it to a conference committee where the bill would likely expire with the special session.

That’s why the bill in the House was bounced back to the House Rules Committee, a universal sign that a bill doesn’t have the votes to pass. As of this morning, the House Rules Committee has yet to schedule a hearing (not entirely unusual for it) and the floor session is delayed to a call of the chair.

In the big picture: The deep political divisions in the Legislature when it comes to the pandemic ought to really cast some serious questions on the Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s thinking in introducing the measure in the first place, especially when he could enact much of the requests on his own through a disaster declaration. Not only has this delayed the help that hospitals say is needed, but it also has the potential to pose more problems than it’d fix with the pandemic. But then again, maybe that’s the point.

Delayed

Speaking of delays to the calls of the chairs, the Senate is still trudging its way through the special session budget bill—the one that would pay out a $1,100 PFD and approve some bits and pieces of other funding, including the restoration of public health nurse funding that was vetoed by Dunleavy—and the Senate Finance Committee is at its own call of the chair today. On its agenda is the budget bill, which has still yet to go through its round of amendments, as well as a bill calling for an advisory vote on the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend. The big fight here is, like with the House, going to be over the size of the PFD but the general talk is that there aren’t the votes for anything larger than a $1,100 payout but, then again, who knows.

The biggest problem is—and always was—the question: Who pays?

While there is certainly some pieces on the table that would answer that question with some combination of higher taxes on the oil industry, corporations, drivers and everyone (which would be the sales tax), things are quickly coming unraveled as folks, particularly with the “no taxes to pay a PFD” crowd standing as a key roadblock.

There’s also the question over just how much of the Alaska Permanent Fund really ought to “belong” to government and how much should “belong” to the people. The Senate Finance Committee is starting to drum up an argument that the government is due more than 50% of the fund because its investments and foregone spending of the government portion that have helped the fund grow over the last 40 years. Roughly speaking, it’d put things at a 75-25 split instead of the 50-50 the governor has pushed for. It was a point that was raised in one of the recent Senate hearings where Sen. Bert Stedman and company were trying to force the issue with the administration.

The administration, represented by Deputy Revenue Commissioner Brian Fechter, argued that a 50-50 split “feels right” and also went down the tired old path of arguing emotions to the committee and that the larger PFD is warranted because of the ongoing pandemic despite its potential for long-term impacts on the state

“That was just B.S.,” Stedman replied. “Wasn’t even remotely related to the question.”

Underneath it all, there’s just an amazing lack of trust and confidence between any of the opposing factions. Much of it can be traced back to the simmering feud between Senate Finance Committee and Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy was a member of the Senate Finance Committee along with most of the current members and it seems like they don’t have a particularly high opinion of the senator who managed to turn all his position into… well… nothing but headaches for everyone else.

The hearing was particularly scathing for the administration. Stedman openly laughed at some of the administration’s positions—particularly the one where they demanded that the fiscal plan MUST have a 50-50 PFD, MUST NOT have income taxes and MUST have a strict spending limit—

When the committee chairs asked Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, had any question, he replied, "No, it's hard to get a straight answer out of these folks."

Even Sen. David Wilson, a conservative Republican, added “I understand your frustration.”

Political shade aside, the meeting did produce an important bit of information about how things will move forward.

At the same meeting, Sen. Lyman Hoffman—who stands to be one of the deciding votes on the size of the PFD in the Senate— said he supports a larger dividend but not one that the state cannot afford. To that end, he renewed his call for a stepped approach that would ratchet up as new revenues come online: "I support stair stepping as an alternative, starting at the $1,110 stage that was passed by the Legislature in the last bill."

But until the state can agree on the steps or, more importantly, where those steps even lead, it seems a battle that will drag on forever.

Fight forever

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be a guest panelist on a forum about the legislative session and the state’s political outlook for the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. One of the things that struck me in that conversation is just how much we all focus in on the specifics to the detriment of the bigger picture. These piecemeal fights distract and stymie the overall efforts to accomplish anything, ensuring the fights will drag on and the Legislature looks that much worse in the process.

Aside from the “no taxes to pay a PFD” and the “PFDs can be paid without taxes, just trust me” crowds, you’ll hear general exhaustion and frustration from legislators pretty much across the spectrum with a lot of folks looking for whatever might be able to pass and balance the books. The question is how we break through any of this to make some real progress and promote some real compromise between the opposing sides.

I don’t know how we get to that point, but my answer at the panel is that it sure would be great if some certain folks would stop actively lying about the situation we’re in.

Reading list