Stumbling Towards Adjournment

Another week of stumbling toward a conclusion.

Happy Friday, Alaska! It’s Day 67 of the 32nd Legislature.

After an all-day amendment session on Thursday and a shorter Friday session, the House has finally passed legislation authorizing an extension/renewal of the state’s disaster declaration… nearly two months after it expired and when Gov. Mike Dunleavy says he doesn’t need it anymore. The final vote on House Bill 76 was 22-15 with just minority Republican Rep. Bart LeBon crossing the caucus line to support the bill. It still needs to go to through the Senate, where the Republican majority seems to be more skeptical about the need to call it a disaster and seems to be on the governor’s side of a more pared back bill. Time is going to be of the essence here because the state needs authority to receive boosted assistance for food stamps. DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum said they’ll be able to receive the funds if the measure is passed by April 15 but admitted that the payments to families could be delayed by weeks if that’s the case. That obviously leaves a bit to be desired.

“While you may hear arguments that if we don't act by April 1, SNAP beneficiaries will be able to receive their emergency allotment retroactively, it won't feed a malnutirous child who is hungry now,” said Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, the Bethel Democrat who along with Rep. Liz Snyder helped revive the legislation, during the floor debate.

After a lengthy amendment processes in the committees and on the floor, the legislation contains several additional changes beyond what Dunleavy originally asked for: A broad immunity protection for businesses against covid-19 liability, an explicit opposition to forced vaccines (which, again, has never been on the table) and language that explicitly says none of the money can be used for abortions. That final amendment was made on the House floor, seeing Majority Coalition Reps. Kelly Merrick, Chris Tuck and Josiah Patkotak cross over to join the rest of the Republicans.

The debate on the floor was a pretty stark display of just how divided Alaskans are when it comes to covid-19. While Republicans stressed individual responsibility and choosing whatever risk you’re comfortable with—with a dash of anti-homeless sentiment thrown in for good measure—others argued that the legislation represents a collective responsibility we have for each other to tolerate the inconvenient and discomfort for those individuals and communities most at risk. Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, put it well, adding that the pandemic and loss of life is deeply personal to many Alaskans.  

“This once in a lifetime pandemic has a personal edge for me as well. I often think back to a young Alaska Native girl over 100 years ago or so who was orphaned by the great Spanish Flu. And that young Alaska Native girl was my grandmother. In my home region of Bristol Bay, the pandemic of 2020 has held a very personal nature to it. A lot of us have relatives that we can look back into time and know that we lost when the last worldwide pandemic reared its ugly head. So, maybe that gives me a more personal connection to what's going on today, and I'll fully admit that," he said, noting that he's done a lot to try to understand the divergent attitudes on the virus. "Thank goodness there is light at the end of the tunnel, but I've also observed that through all those hundreds of years and all these dark periods in the history of mankind, human nature has stubbornly persisted. Every time, looking back into the history and probably going forward as well, whenever we have an event like a pandemic, epidemic or whatever it might be that the intersect of individual freedoms on one side and the public health—and the protective measures that come with it—clash and collide. I heard that repeatedly on the floor today. For better or worse, here we are. This bill to me is very important, it's very personal and I also think it's very critical."

Side note: In some ways, the process on House Bill 76 ought to serve as a preview for what the budget will eventually look like. A smattering of crossover votes on key issues, several reminders to not impugn the motives of other legislators and uncertainty over just what’ll happen when it reaches the other chamber and the governor.

The budget

This week saw most of the House budget subcommittees wrap up their work. As much as I’d like to try, I just don’t have the capacity to track everything down that happened, but here’s what crossed my radar:

  • The subcommittee on the Department of Administration nixed Gov. Mike Dunleavy/Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka’s proposal to close six DMV offices. While there was some Republican support for axing the Eagle River office, everyone voted to turn down the proposal to close the Haines, Homer, Tok, Delta Junction and Valdez offices.

  • The same committee also voted along caucus lines to ax the Department of Administration’s analytics team, a group set up by executive order without legislative approval, that has done nothing except maybe identify some Medicaid fraud. At least they think so.

  • The Department of Law subcommittee slapped down a bunch of Dunleavy’s budget proposals, including one that would have charged municipalities for prosecuting misdemeanors. This one got widespread support to nix because it’d be such a dramatic change in policy while also only seeming to save the state about $1.5 million.

  • In that same committee, Rep. Andy Josephson led the effort to reject several proposals to undo the Legislature’s previous actions that put the clamps on the extent to which the Department of Law can go down run former Attorney General Kevin Clarkson’s anti-union lawsuits (which have already cost the state nearly $200,000 in judgements). They also cut the Department of Law’s civil division by $200,000 in response to the amount that’s been spent on said anti-union lawsuit.

  • The Department of Health and Social Services budget probably has a bunch of interesting stuff going on in it, but the one item that came across my radar was that the committee rejected the administration’s request to move Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink’s office into the commissioner’s office, which I’m sure was just a totally innocent maneuver.

While all of these smaller budget discussions are interesting and worthwhile, the bigger developing question on the budget (well, other than the PFD, the deficit and new revenue) is just what will and what can happen with impending influx of stimulus cash from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. The Alaska government will be on the receiving end of more than $1 billion in direct cash with many more hundreds of millions flowing in through different avenues. There’s really very few answers about any of it right now because the initial treasury guidance is still more than a month and a half away (it’s due on May 10 or Day 112 of the legislative session).

As Legislative Finance Division Director Alexei Painter explained to the Senate Finance Committee this morning, the major issue here is the shifting federal guidance. The Legislature can take a prescriptive approach detailing how those funds are to be spent, but if something changes on the federal end that may require the Legislature to come back and update its budget. It can give Dunleavy flexibility on how to spend those dollars, but then that gets into the issue of the Legislature handing off its powers of appropriation.

“The more narrowly we appropriate the funds, the more difficult it will be to get out of here in 121 days and the more likely it is that a special session is needed to reallocate funds if the guidance changes,” he said.

Oh, and if you look at next week’s schedule the Senate doesn’t have anything planned on Thursday and Friday, which would support the chatter I’ve heard that they’re gearing up to gear down for Easter weekend.

GavelClassic

Adjust your #GavelClassic adjournment guesses accordingly. The deadline to lock in is midnight TONIGHT! You can submit your prognostication here: The Gavel Classic Guess Form.

Reading list

And now for something else

This week’s video is a return to the vlogbrothers well. It’s a good video exploring the uncertainty of everything as we move ahead with the pandemic, the vaccine and how we navigate a world that sure feels like it’s filled with jerks.

On less of a down note, here’s a fun video about windmills in Alaska.

Have a nice weekend, y’all and don’t be a jerk.