The (Really) Good, The Ugly, & The Meh-2018 Legislative Session Wrap up
Dear Friends and Neighbors:
It’s Over. The world is a better place than it was before session – and way better than it could have been with one-party rule. With a very Conservative GOP-led Senate, a moderate House Bi-Partisan Majority Coalition whom I served with, and an Independent Governor, we drove the middle line, found consensus or compromise (which often involved hard-nosed negotiations) to make many things better for people. We stopped extreme measures.
In the Words of MLK, Jr., and FDR….
Good things happened that, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, supported those who have little, not just those who have much. While I’m at it, I’ll note for the impatient the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., on changing the world the way you want it overnight. He taught us through his actions and words that “the arc of justice bends slowly, but in the right direction.” And in the words of me, I’m getting out of here for a few days to go fishing. I need a little time on a stream, in a rainforest, in the shadow of massive mountains, to myself.
Gold Standard Law Passes To Improve the Lives of Our 3,000 Foster Youth
I’m just a little bit thrilled we finally passed what experts tell me is one of the biggest recent foster care reforms nationally. It was needed. It will make the lives and opportunities for children and families to thrive better, and avoid the harm caused too often to youth in an unsupported foster care system that sees youth bounce between home to home. We’ll never know the youth who graduated, but wouldn’t have; thrived when they could have faltered; or raised healthy families instead of going in and out of jail or homelessness as a result of this bi-partisan effort. They will get what they deserve. Lives like children who did not lose their parents through no fault of their own. I thank all who joined in passing House Bill 151, the Children Deserve a Loving Home Act. On this and many other issues, I as a Democrat can say we had many champions on both sides of the aisle this year. Those were the high moments this session.
Education: We battled, We gained
This year we pushed hard to reverse $18 million in cuts the past 4 years. Losing teachers – over 700 teachers, counsellors, and support staff since 2015 – doesn’t improve the chances for students to succeed. But we ran into a philosophical divide between a more conservative Senate that didn’t want to increase adjust our per student funding statute we use to fund education. In the end a permanent statutory guarantee of that needed school funding didn’t get support of House minority republicans or the GOP Senate. But we negotiated opponents up to a one-time funding increase of almost the same about – about a 1.5% increase to keep up with inflation, and minimize more school layoffs. It also added a needed boost to one of the most underfunded pre-k systems in the nation, to reach more children because if you lost a child at ages 4 and 5, you’ve likely lost them as thriving students as they get older. And we reversed years of shortsighted University cuts.
This is investing in the future, and making sure people have opportunity in life. Folks who opposed it on the ground that it was just “spending” never had a response when asked how flat funding or cuts, which would have resulted in the loss of hundreds of more teachers, and a university that has to cut more and more programs forcing students to leave the state, improves lives.
Only in politics can well-heeled business folks and corporations block reforms, and promote a worse economy. But that’s what these special business interests did, and will do this election season to protect their shareholders and owners at the expense of you and the broader economy.
I personally think too many people are still playing election politics with a massive budget deficit. Tough votes are hard to explain to voters. But I believe in being up front with you. Here are a few facts. They need to change.
We’ve already cut $900 million in state spending on agencies and operations since 2015, and have now gone beyond cutting fat. With decreased capital construction budgets, which means less building and road maintenance, and fewer needed energy projects, and fewer construction jobs, the budget has been cut by $3.4 billion since 2013. With the crash in oil prices, joined by the weakest oil tax law of all major oil producing states in America, we still have an $800 million deficit, and it’s really $1.1 billion if you want to have a real capital and construction job budget. But it’s harder to run for re-election if you admit the obvious, that we need revenue. The choices are oil tax reform, which my Bi-Partisan House Coalition passed, but the Senate did not. And a modest personal tax that should require those with greater wealth to chip in more, and spare those with little wealth -which the titans of campaign money opposed. We should close a gaping corporate tax loophole that exempts all 6,000 S Corporations, Professional Corporations and LLC’s. I filed that legislation. The bottom line is we need a fair way to raise revenue, that asks those corporations and people with the greatest privilege and wealth to chip in fairly. Many with wealth agree. But right-wing political operatives who use the Chamber of Commerce and other corporate election groups as Republican campaign tools spent on ads to stop progress. So what they get is an economy in recession, and that will stay in recession until we adopt a revenue plan like all other 49 states with sales or income taxes have. And we have to stop giving away our oil at bargain basement prices.
Revenue is needed to put schools and put the economy back on track. Every expert who have come before us, from the Institute of Social and Economic Research at UAA to bankers to other presenters have said this. I work with legislators who admitted the hard truth on this issue, and some who ducked it.
The Ugly and the Meh
I don’t like spending on waste when we have so many needs. And I don’t think it’s smart to stay in Juneau until a government shutdown. So in politics you have the choice to negotiate with folks on these items, or ruining the economy with July Government shutdowns.
I could have stayed here and held my breath, and demanded a government shutdown to try to get folks to back down on what I saw as an unjustified $21 million in spending on a currently defunct $600 million Juneau Road megaproject – a road that would be massively expensive to maintain because it goes past 30 avalanche chutes, and doesn’t really cut the many day commute to Southcentral and Northern Alaska. That road goes to just another ferry terminal near Haines, you’d still have to take a ferry, and the current ferry to Juneau from Haines is cheaper and would take roughly the same time.
But Senators put $21 million into a Juneau Road account, and I can’t have everything my way.
The Senate passed $3.5 million to be put into the $2 billion Knik Arm Bridge mega project, which I personally oppose as unwise spending, and which we were able in the end to reduce to $2 million.
End of session negotiations saw a loss in funds to support moving forward more quickly on rural safe water and sanitation. The goal was to speed the day we put the honey bucket in the museum of history.
And we owe doctors, hospitals and medical providers $48 million for Medicaid services they have provided through the end of this year. The Senate passed a budget without those funds, the House tried to pay these bills, and in the end the two houses settled on an amount that partially funds what we owe. It will mean a 30-day delay in some payments, and will require the legislature to pass additional funds to avoid payment delays next year.
I did not love those and some other last minute negotiated changes, but in the end both houses need to agree on a budget to avoid bickering all summer, extending session, and inappropriately threatening a government shutdown. Both sides were wise not to do the latter.
Every budget, with hundreds of items, has things you agree with, and things each legislator voting for a budget hates. There is no budget you can pass with items all 60 legislators agree to.
I wish I had the power, as a single legislator, to push a different, stronger budget on education, and cheaper on what I consider unaffordable, wasteful megaprojects. I don’t see how you can afford $2.6 billion in mega-bridges and roads with an $800 million deficit.
That’s the summary.
Alaska is better off. It could have been a lot better off. But all in all I have to commend members in a more conservative Republican-led Senate for working with our Bi-Partisan House Coalition to find a lot of common ground. It was sometimes easy, and sometimes hard. And it resulted in a much better process than if we had one party rule, with no checks and balances.
As always, call with any questions, or if there’s anything I can do to help!