Dunleavy's short-sighted PFD shenanigans could upend Alaska's budget process

After trying to leverage the shutdown for a big PFD and several other political windfalls, Dunleavy's allies ultimately settled for a "bicameral nonpartisan working group.” But what about next year?

Good morning, Alaska! Today’s the last day of the fiscal year, the last day of having a progressive mayor in Anchorage and the last day I’ll be 32.

In this edition: Taking a look at the long-term impacts of the latest near-shutdown and the unprecedented politics that have brought us to this point, a reminder that there is a big ol’ election on the horizon, the reading list and the “end”-of-week video.

But first, a programming note: With the end of session, a whopping 160.55 days since they gaveled in in January, I need a break. I’m going to be taking Thursday (when government keeps operating, Anchorage gets a new mayor and I turn 33) and Friday off this week to go on a hike and catch up with some home projects. I want to say thank you to everyone who’s been reading the newsletter for the last six months. What was really a spur-of-the-moment idea has turned into a new and personally refreshing outlet. I’ve loved having a closer connection with you all, reading each and every comment, email and Facebook message asking questions, offering insight and letting me know I got a name wrong. Really! It’s all made a world of difference. With the Legislature wrapped up (well, they have a special session in a month and a working group that’s supposed to have two public hearings and generate a complete fiscal plan in between), I want to take a moment to reflect with you all about what has worked, what hasn’t worked and what new topics you might want to see in future editions. Feel free to comment or hit reply on this email (it’ll land in my inbox), I’ll be sure to read everything… it just might take a few days. Thank you all so very much, Matt.

Opening Pandora’s budget box

There’s a lot of different ways to describe Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s time in office, but the one theme that I keep returning to is that more often than not the strategy has been focused on getting through the day with harebrained schemes and maneuvers with little thought for the long-term consequences. It’s a strategy that, unsurprisingly, has yielded few wins and caused some significant long-term headaches.

Dunleavy’s initial budget penned by Donna Arduin proposed deeply unpopular, politically motivating cuts that helped launch a recall and turned a majority-Republican Legislature against him. But it wasn’t just cuts for the sake of cutting, the simple goal of that entire exercise was “Deliver that mega PFD I promised to the voters without the taxes that would tarnish my image of being a 6’7” GOP darling.” And for all that effort, he got no dividend, no significant cuts and today’s Legislature may, push comes to shove, actually have the votes to implement some kind of new tax (they won’t because Dunleavy would veto it). By pushing too hard and too fast to deliver on his campaign promise, Dunleavy bullied away what little political capital he had over the course of the summer. Privately, key Republicans were simultaneously shocked that he would have stepped in it so completely but those familiar with his unremarkable career in the Senate were by and large unsurprised. While they may have been unwilling to commit their names to the recall petition—knowing full well that it would be used like some kind of McCarthyism document to root out the non-believers from state service and lucrative contracts—there were many who were hoping to see inoffensive and competent Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer take the reins.

The beginning of the pandemic marked a reprieve for the governor. Not only did all the social distancing and pandemic consciousness basically sideline all progressive-leaning politics, recall included, but it teed up easy decisions for the governor. Stop travel, hunker down and close the schools were all broadly popular in the uncertain days before the right-wing media machine spun up to cover for the president’s inept handling of it all. Things, obviously, became more complicated and more political as the pandemic progressed, but by then enough of an edge had been taken off Dunleavy largely by the steady presence of Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink, a person who’s care and understanding of Alaska, its differences and its strengths was a stark departure from the Us vs. Them that had characterized Dunleavy’s time in office. For a fleeting moment, we were all in it together. For some, it was enough to cool the heat of the recall and for others the dwindling clock on his term made the effort feel like a distraction to the ultimate prize of the 2022 election.

The recall itself was not all for naught. The governor’s budgets have since been light on cuts, his financial proposal is at least marginally more realistic than the one penned by Arduin after having essentially adopted 2018 opponent Mark Begich’s proposal for the dividend. It still doesn’t really balance out, but at least it’s a plan worth kicking the tires on before settling on something more economical.

Or at least that’s what it seemed like before the last two weeks sent Alaska barreling closer than it ever has to a shutdown. Grabbing on what appears to be the latest ploy of Republicans minorities to impose their will on everyone else (something that also happened in Maine to more success), the Alaska House Republican minority denied the budget the votes to make the it effective on July 1. Whether or not that vote was ever needed is still an open question that may be decided by the courts, but the entire exercise will have long-lasting and far-reaching implications on Alaska’s legislative process.

And while the right-wing media machine and its surrogates have sought to complicate the issue and cast blame at their key legislative target—the bipartisan House Majority Coalition—the fact remains that Dunleavy did little but fan the flames of shutdown. He was notably absent during the final days of session to go hunting, his administration sent out a remarkable email blast encouraging legislators to vote against the budget (apparently by accident, but then why draft it?), he only declared the budget “defective” once the votes had been taken and legislators were headed home, and, even more remarkably, he had planned to be out of state for a fundraiser with Trump as the second special session got underway. He seemed more focused on throwing insults at his legislative opponents on talk radio than striving to patch the differences to keep government open and 8% of the state’s workforce employed.

But perhaps the most telling piece of the entire exercise was that Dunleavy and allies attempted to turn the leverage into some combination of a $2,350 PFD, anti-abortion language, nearly a dozen capital projects in Mat-Su districts, unspecified cuts and a slate of constitutional amendments (they never really agreed on what they wanted, which complicated the issues). Each one of those items would’ve been a windfall for a governor heading into an election year with next to nothing to his name in terms of accomplishments. It ultimately all was a price too steep to keep the government open—not to mention the insane logistics of trying to get an entirely new budget passed in a matter of days—and five House Republican minority members blinked, ultimately settling for a “bicameral nonpartisan working group.” But what about next year and the year after that?

That’s the issue that’s currently before the courts in a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Treg Taylor against the Legislative Affairs Agency. The case has its own legal issues (namely that it’s essentially the governor unconstitutionally suing the Legislature but with extra steps), but at its heart it’s attempting to settle the issue on whether a minority of 14 representatives or seven senators can hold the government hostage in order to achieve a goal that couldn’t be reached through the normal legislative course. And, sure, the effective date vote has been reached on every other budget in recent memory, but this combination of Dunleavy’s newfound legal reading and the increasingly shutdown-happy politics of the minority present an uncertain and rocky future for Alaska and the state Legislature.

It was an enormous task for the Legislature to drag the budget across the finish line. The House had its problems but at least its majority had the votes to pass the budget. The Senate only reached 11 with the help of several minority Democrats, a remarkable and ominous feat. And now, they’ll essentially have to negotiate a budget that appeases 27 in the House and 14 in the Senate and that’s not to mention the critical three-quarter vote needed for the Constitutional Budget Reserve.

It would be one thing if the House Republican minority’s demands weren’t essentially “give us exactly everything we want or else we’ll shutdown government and, by the way, we actually think that would be a good thing as long as we can go fishing” or if the governor was more willing to bring everyone to the negotiating table with realistic expectations. But that’s not the situation we find ourselves in.

What this all means going forward is, frankly, uncertain. There’s a court case that may settle this issue that will be argued in late July and legislators are just relieved to have made it through Dunleavy’s latest manufactured crisis. The Legislature would either have to effectively reach a supermajority vote on every budget, finding themselves beholden to the minority, or find a way to pass the budget at least 90 days before the start of the fiscal year. And, realistically, at least 15 days (not including Sundays) before then so the governor can review the budget and sign it. Still, a governor like Dunleavy could veto the budget even if it’s passed early and hand the shutdown leverage right back to an intransigent minority.

It’s all a logistical nightmare that, frankly, I’m happy to not be tasked with solving. And all for what? A “bicameral nonpartisan working group.” Great.

‘Someone with a pulse’

When I keep wondering what in the world else I’ll cover with the Legislature wrapping up its work (at least temporarily (and also I wrote this section before I put down 1,300+ words on the Dunleavy saga)), I am reminded that there’s already a U.S. Senate race underway. Ah, right. But at least the national outlets haven’t forgotten and have been busily plinking away at previews of the 2022’s ranked-choice bout of Murkowski v. Tshibaka v. probably a throwaway Democratic candidate v. probably another far-right candidate… Joe Miller?

While Trump and Tshibaka have been busy standing up their campaign against Murkowski, Murkowski did what she does best and delivered a measured and stinging blow in today’s Politico article covering the race:

“It doesn't surprise me. The president has said, you know, that he's gonna endorse anybody that has a pulse,” Murkowski said of GOP challenger, Kelly Tshibaka. “This, apparently, is somebody with a pulse.”

The entire article is chock-full of great quotes with the second best one coming from Montana Democratic U.S. Sen. John Tester: “She adds value. She’s not unreasonable. We don’t agree all the time, but shit, I don’t agree with my wife all the time either.”

Of course, the big uncertainty with everything around the 2022 election is the implementation of the open primary where the top four vote getters advance to a general election race that will be conducted with ranked-choice voting. Just how it plays out in the U.S. Senate race, the governor’s race and every other legislative race on the 2022 ticket will, I believe, largely rest on whether or not the system attracts more candidates representing a more diverse spectrum of political views. The status quo has largely resulted in essentially head-to-head legislative races with most being decided in the primary thanks to the way Alaska’s districts are drawn (which are getting redrawn, by the way). If that’s how things continue to play out, then ranked choice voting isn’t going to be particular exciting when you’ve got just two candidates to rank.

Reading list

And now for something completely different

One of my big pandemic hobbies has been modeling and painting, a way of revisiting the childhood afternoons spent with my brothers with hobby paints, hot glue guns and cardboard. It’s been mostly in the incredibly dorky realm of tabletop wargaming (of which I’ve done very little actual playing but, hey, there’s a pandemic… right?), but in the process I’ve stumbled across the wonderful world of miniature dioramas, which immediately hit on that bit of nostalgia of visiting the awe-inspiring miniature railroad system at California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento with Grandma Georgina. Anyways, that’s all to say most of the YouTube content from this hobby is too nerdy for me to even share in this space, but I’ve recently found this channel that combines the nerdiness with a fun presentation.

Have a happy new fiscal year, mayoral transition and Fourth of July!