This may take a while

With a late start for the House, ongoing issues with covid-19 and little direction on the monumental decisions, this session is increasingly likely to go into overtime.

Happy Friday, Alaska! Today is Day 60, which would just about mark the constitutional halfway point for the legislative session, but if there was a theme from this week—other than the continued exasperation with Sen. Lora Reinbold and company—it’s that things are expected to run long… potentially very long.

(Also, quick programming note: It’s a Saturday in the Sun kind of week.)

With a late start for the House, ongoing issues with covid-19 and little direction on the monumental decisions on the budget, on the dividend and on the state’s structural deficit, it’d be a tall order for things to all be wrapped up by the Alaska Constitution’s 121-day session by May 19 (and the 90-day session was never even seriously considered as a possibility). Also, while writing up this column I noticed this change to the Legislature’s homepage this morning:

On the budget front, the state did get some good news this week with a revised spring revenue forecast that anticipates the state will receive about $460 million more than expected from oil taxes in the upcoming fiscal year. It also paints a somewhat better picture for the state’s corporate income taxes, which were looking to potentially dip into the negative territory with how tax provisions in the federal CARES Act interacted with state law. It doesn’t erase the state’s deficit—especially the deficit it’d take to pay out Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed mega dividends (several billions of dollars), which he is standing by despite the payout of the federal stimulus—and, according to a report by the Anchorage Daily News, Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka and co-chairman of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee said the money “doesn’t bring in more opportunities for additional expenditures or anything like that,” but “it takes a little bit of pressure off.” Dang! I was hoping for some more tennis courts!

The two biggest questions when it comes to state spending will be the size of the dividend balanced against the overdraws from the Alaska Permanent Fund’s earnings reserve account. While there’s more support for a boosted payout following last year’s elections, there’s also a growing understanding of just what such overdraws will mean for the future of the Alaska Permanent Fund (namely, bigger future deficits). At the House Coalition’s news conference on Thursday, House Speaker Louise Stutes, Majority Leader Chris Tuck and House Finance Committee co-chair Rep. Neal Foster all confirmed that they didn’t support overdrawing the Alaska Permanent Fund with Tuck going so far as to say the American Rescue Plan’s stimulus relieves the pressure for boosted cash payments to Alaskans. Whether that will actually play out once things reach the House floor is anyone’s guess and House leadership said they’re still working things out internally and have yet to decide on a specific direction at this point.

Foster also brought up a point I flagged in the Monday edition of the newsletter: the pending arrival of more than $1 billion in cash payments to the state (which doesn’t include payments to local governments, tribes and schools). He noted that the timing of that money and the accompanying federal guidance on how it can be spent will go a long way in determining when session gets done. The Legislature ceded much of its spending authority to the Dunleavy administration last year in its rush to get out of the way of the covid-19 pandemic, a point of bipartisan criticism throughout the interim and into this session.

“There’s been a lot of interest from at least the folks on the House side to have the ability to direct where that money goes as opposed to the governor,” he said, but acknowledged that if that can’t get done in the 131 days (the 121-day session plus the 10-day extension allowed by the constitution) that they’d face the hurdle of calling themselves into a special session. If they don’t, they could be stuck once again in the quagmire of the RPL process that would allow Gov. Mike Dunleavy to largely direct how more than $1 billion could be spent. Either way, Foster and leadership agreed that the influx of federal dollars shouldn’t be reason to for the Legislature to take the easy way out once again this year.

“Do we want to look at additional revenue? Do we want to look at a spending cap? Right now, we don’t know how much we can use to offset the state budget,” Foster said. “This is one-time money and, sure, it might last two or three years but at some point that’s going to run out and we still have the tough decisions before us and it’s just going to make our budget look bigger if we use that money to offset the budget without a way to continue that into the future.”

That’s all a massive ask and that’s before we get into the increasingly real problems created by covid-19 and the increasingly dramatic theatrics of covid-denying legislators. While as much as half the building’s personnel has received at least the first dose of the covid-19 vaccine, it’s not near enough to reach the herd immunity needed to begin relaxing health precautions (the answer is, according to LAA Director Jessica Geary “Something along the lines of we don’t know at this time”). The Legislature saw several new cases this week with accompanying quarantines for close contacts that plenty of folks, including two legislators, stay home. This sort of stuff, as we’ve seen, can get quickly out of hand. The announcement that the Idaho Legislature is closing up shop for nearly three weeks due to an outbreak just as they had expected to wrap up ought to serve as a warning (there, eight of 105 legislators have contracted the virus this year).

And then there’s the theatrics of it all. Sen. Lora Reinbold’s increasingly tired antics have delayed hearings in both the Senate and House for combined hours at this point. Today, Wasilla Republican Rep. Christopher Kurka took a page out of Reinbold’s book and brought the House floor session to a standstill amid a dispute over his stupid “Government mandated muzzle” mask, which was a violation of the Legislature’s requirements for professional attire on the floor. Earlier this week, Kurka left the House floor rather than wear a mask after giving a speech where he suggested the masking policy is simply a political ploy and that the Legislature ought to just give up on trying to limit the spread of the virus. (Kurka is also the former head of Alaska Right to Life, an extreme-right Rep. David Eastman-affiliated group that was so extreme that it found itself at odds with Jim Minnery and company.) The Juneau Empire has a good rundown of everything that happened. The House, which had been set to take up a Senate bill allowing remote meetings for some boards and corporations, is set to return on Saturday for another go.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Liz Snyder was not having it.

‘Midway’ through

Still, given that we’re technically midway through the session, I’m curious about what y’all think are some of the key points of session so far. I’ve got some inklings but am working on an episode of Hello Alaska! this weekend and would like to hear from y’all. What are some of the themes, moments and issues of this session? I’ve opened up comments to everyone for this post if you’ve got some thoughts.

Weekend reading

  • There’s not enough time in the day to keep fully up-to-date with the legislative session, let alone the big ol’ Anchorage mayoral election. The Anchorage Press featured a report this week from The Blue Alaskan that focuses in on leading conservative candidate Dave Bronson, whose campaign seems to have largely been launched out of the toxic Save Anchorage group. If you’re an Anchorage voter and need convincing about what’s at stake with this election, this is worth a read. From the Anchorage Press: The radical anti-LGBT views of mayoral candidate Dave Bronson

  • If you’re on the hunt for a vaccine appointment, the Mat-Su has plenty. Just keep your mask on while visiting because the Matanuska-Susitna Borough is the least vaccinated region of the state with a case rate that is still pretty high. It’s almost like there’s a load of disinformation about the vaccine and covid-19 going around. From Alaska Public Media: As Mat-Su vaccine appointments go unfilled, fears grow about misinformation and hesitancy

  • The brouhaha in the Legislative Council, the House Health and Social Services Committee, the Senate Floor aren’t the only places that Sen. Lora Reinbold has been causing problems. This week’s confirmation hearing for Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct nominee Jane Mores (Sen. Shelley Hughes’ sister) went particularly off the rails and not because of covid this time. From Dermot Cole: Senate Republicans disgrace Alaska by allowing Reinbold to rule judiciary committee

  • In a bit of fun news, with rural basketball tournaments underway some boys teams are enlisting the help of the girls to fill out rosters. That includes eighth-grader Fannie Williams who told the radio that “I don’t know… I just wanted to play ball, I guess.” From KOTZ Radio: Kiana’s boys basketball team needed one more for a full squad. An 8th grade girl volunteered

One last thing

With most of us hopefully at least partway into our vaccination regime, I’ve been thinking a lot about life post-pandemic. As someone who’s worked from home since 2017, I don’t have an office to eventually return, but that doesn’t mean life is about to change in some big and small ways as we start to get past this whole thing. For me, I think it really re-centered how I value things. I’ve invested more effort in making the space around myself a place I love to spend time but I’ve also realized that I’m not quite the anti-social hermit that I thought. The pandemic has shaken all of us in different ways and and its eventual end will shake all of our lives in a whole set of unknown ways, too.

This video from Hank Green, who along with author John Green (“Fault in Our Stars”) makes up the excellent vlogbrothers, puts it all in a good context. Life after the pandemic will be different, in ways that we expect and ways that we don’t.

But mostly, let’s hang out more often.

Have a nice weekend and I’ll see y’all back sometime Saturday with the next edition of Saturday in the Sun.