Thank You For Letting Me Represent You; We’ve Done A Lot Together!
Dear Friends and Neighbors:
This is one of the harder newsletters I’ve ever written, about the most gratifying job I’ve ever had. I’ve enjoyed representing you the past decade and a half, and working with so many of you around the state to try to make life a little better for people. I have a term to complete and will keep working hard for you until mid-January. But I’ve chosen, after going back and forth many times, not to run for re-election. It was a hard decision. Waking up every morning knowing you have the chance, and obligation, to try to make someone's life better is an amazing privilege. Many of you know this from your own jobs.
For a few years now I’ve asked bright people I run into, whom I think would do a strong job – mostly women as I’d like more gender balance in the Legislature – if they’d like to run for my job. On the bad days when I didn’t love work, I offered them money to take my job. Just kidding. I was always KIDDING about that part.
Disappointingly, every woman I asked said no, or "not a chance", or "no way", or used unprintable words that basically meant "not in a million years." Too many of the right people aren’t interested in this job and I hope this newsletter might change some minds, for some day in the future. There are many of you I don’t know or haven’t run into who’d do a great job at improving life for others.
My decision came down to this. Basically, I could use a little break from 16 years in a row of working with a lot of great legislators, and a few with, let’s say, more challenging personalities. They make what would otherwise work much better bog down.
If done right, this job brings a lot of pleasure. But sometimes it seems to require wasted energy. Getting good ideas passed into law takes more effort than it should. It’s not enough to have a good idea in politics, unfortunately, and that goes for the federal and state level. You have to get by odd roadblocks placed in your way by a small handful of legislators who like playing games. If they were kids, your parents wouldn’t let you go to their houses for play dates. Their roadblocks have nothing to do with policy, and everything to do with politics and personalities. I have seen bills blocked because a temperamental or partisan or stubborn chair thinks someone did something the chair didn’t like, even a year ago, that’s completely unrelated to the bill. There always seem to be a handful of legislators like this and when they retire or lose, new ones take their place.
But – those things aside - I've enjoyed the work, and enjoyed the interactions with thousands of you. The positives far outweigh the sometimes childish negatives by a select few who make life tough for everyone.
I've enjoyed the opportunity to work with the first Alaska Native Speaker of the House in state history, in a Bi-Partisan Majority Coalition we worked to form in the House two years ago. I'm proud we blocked major education cuts by those legislators with different views, and protected seniors, children and those who face struggles in life. Though there was conflict, there was also a good dose of bi-partisan cooperation this year, and our House Majority Coalition of 17 Democrats, three Republicans and two independents has been a good, needed moderate balance to a Republican-led Senate.
More work needs to be done. While my House Majority Coalition pushed, Alaska still does not have a balanced budget plan. We are told by colleagues on the other side of the aisle that we can’t help close the gap with a fair share of oil company profits earned for oil all Alaskans own in common. The lowest oil tax among major oil producing states, at a time of $1 billion deficits, is self-imposed poverty. It endangers the construction industry and construction jobs as we delay needed construction projects, and gives those opposed to school, public safety or other needed funding the excuse to say we can’t afford it. Keep that up much longer and people are going to leave this state.
What the Future Holds - Fish
I’m not Machiavellian enough to tell you I’ve plotted a calculated course to a statewide office run in the future. I enjoy serving, and trying to protect and create an Alaska people want to live in, not move from. Elected public service is attractive. But so is life outside of politics and I might also decide to find another way, like you, to serve.
Here's what I do have plotted. I will fish more and spend more time with my wife Kelly, and friends, and on community matters Juneau has taken me away from for a long time. I will read more books and watch more movies, and keep working with abused and neglected children who deserve the same fair shake in life that you and I get.
Proud of the Work We've Done Together
I hope I’ve done this job they way you wanted me to. And I thank the thousands of you over the past 15 years who've come up to me on the street, at the grocery store, or this week at a movie, to say gracious things. That's been a wonderful perk in this job. Thanks to the many of you who shared ideas or helped with the things we've accomplished. And thanks to my great aides, and many legislative friends, and to the many of you who helped by testifying, writing, researching, and helping us achieve so many good results for people we'll never know. Much of what we've done together, as is the case in politics, fell below the radar, and never made a headline. What's good policy often isn't interesting news.
Here are a few things I'm proud of, that we accomplished together.
I'll start with some good that came out of extreme political weirdness. I liked the results. I didn't like the political obstacle course I had to run to get those results. Here's a glimpse of what politics should not be and what I won't miss.
A Legislative Record
I may have set the legislative record for being told by majority members on the other side of the aisle, after writing and filing bills, and moving them through committees, that the bills would not be allowed to pass unless I gave credit for the bill to a legislator from their political party. That is, I had to make a motion on the House Floor to remove my name from the bills, and place the name of another legislator on the bill for it to be allowed to pass. Sometimes you have to let politicians feel they got their ounce of flesh. My ounce of flesh was that good policy passed, with or without my name.
Election Integrity: Today we have a law that requires all voting machines to produce a paper record, to minimize the chance of election fraud. Now even touch screen voting machines produce a paper record that can be recounted if, let's say, someone were to hack into Alaska’s voting system. The gory details? I wrote and filed House Bill 459 in 2004. It was modeled on a bill Senator Johnny Ellis had also filed. The bill had a lot of support. But I was told by a fairly partisan Finance Chairman that when the bill reached his committee it would be blocked - unless I removed my name as the bill sponsor, and gave credit to a member of his party. Former Representative John Harris reached out to let me put his name on the bill, and it was allowed to pass. Good policy, annoying politics.
Good City Planning: The same happened with a bill to remove an arcane Alaska “urban mis-planning” rule which barred all state financed housing from having space for a restaurant, coffee shop, day care center, or other business or non-profit activity. In vibrant cities you find stores and amenities people need and enjoy on the ground floor of residential buildings. That impediment has now been removed in Alaska. The bill also expands our ability to produce low and mixed income housing, at affordable, subsidized rates. The newly allowed retail space can be rented at market rates, and generate extra rental income, which can then be used to add more housing units. On that bill, I also filed a motion to remove my name as lead sponsor to get this bill past a partisan committee chair. Then-Representative Mia Costello, who I'd worked with on the bill and was already a supporter, became the only lead sponsor. We worked together to pass this law, House Bill 50 in 2013. She was gracious as Rep. Harris had been in the past. They both wanted to help pass good policy, not take credit.
Consumer Protection: Not Allowed?
When I was first elected I was almost immediately told by the Rules Chairman that bills by minority members (I was a Democrat in a House with a Republican majority) don’t pass. Many minority members would write bills, and give them to majority members to pass to get around this somewhat insane “rule.” I honestly didn’t know this was a (soft) rule when I got elected. But I’m not big on giving up. In the second year of my first term, I passed a needed consumer protection bill. The law at that time basically cost the state money to prove consumer fraud, making the consumer protection section a money loser in tight budget times. Now when the state prevails in protecting a victim of consumer fraud cause, the party committing the fraud has to compensate the state for its full civil prosecution costs, on top of appropriate penalties. I was proud of the first of many bills I was told I could never get passed.
Oh The Fire Alarms
In 2007 the first foster care reform bill I passed was slowed down so many times by partisan committee chairs that, with their stalling, and two very untimely fire alarms during bill hearings, it only passed with about 5 minutes left in that two-year legislative term. The Republican champion that year was Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom, who helped shake the bill loose from a two of the more partisan committee chairs in her party. Her help, and help from many others, including current and former foster youth and other children's advocates, made a big difference. We reversed a law that banned foster youth, who asked to leave care because they thought they'd be better off on their own, from re-entering foster care when they realized their choice led to homelessness, danger, or poverty. And we joined the roughly 40 states that allow, when needed, foster care to extend to age 21.
Energy Efficiency Standards For Public Buildings; Lower Greenhouse Gas Emissions
There is a saying that the “cheapest kilowatt is the one you don’t use.” That’s important in a state with exceptionally high energy costs.
Early in my career former Republican Representative Bill Thomas and I didn’t get along. At all. Through the help of one of my great aides, and then a decision by us to drop our swords, we ended up spending much of our time together getting things done as allies. I’m proud to say we jointly sponsored and passed amendments (from a bill that same aide had previously drafted) requiring schools to be built to energy efficiency standards, to both save money over the long term, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Amd #2 to SB 237 in the House Finance Committee in 2010). Rep. Thomas and I also sponsored and passed energy efficiency standards for state, university and court buildings (House Finance Committee Amds #4 & #5 to Senate Bill 220 (2010). These amendments are now law.
“….With Liberty and Justice for All”
That’s my favorite line in the Pledge of Allegiance, which legislators say on TV every day. If you’re going get TV credit for saying it, you should do it.
The First Increase in Head Start Pre-K Funding in Over a Decade: Evidence shows that, especially for children born with little privilege, voluntary Pre-K improves a child's academic opportunity, achievement, and chances at success in life. Some more partisan people in my own party told me I should fight former Republican Governor Sarah Palin every step of the way rather than work with her. But in the years before she ran on a national level, she was willing to work across party lines. As a legislator I've always believed that if you have a Governor who'll work with you to improve things, you should work with them, not try to undermine them. I'd rather improve people's lives than score political points.
In 2006 the state had no state-funded pre-k, ranked near the bottom nationally, and hadn’t increased the state contribution to Federal Head Start Pre-K in over a decade. I met with Governor Palin, and worked to build public support for an increase in state Head Start funding to reduce Head Start waiting lists that were approaching 1,000 children. Though this issue was not originally a big priority for her, I pushed the issue a bit in the press for good measure, kept working with Governor Palin, and she ultimately agreed. Alaska saw two years in a row of Head Start funding increases to avert more waiting list increases. Thanks to the many allies in the Legislature, and in the public, who helped.
Many of us have also battled for state-funded Pre-K, as underfunded Federal Head Start Pre-K only covers a fraction of Alaska's children. After failing for many years to change enough minds on this issue, I asked Debbie Baldwin, a great Pre-K advocate at RuralCAP, if there was a conservative form of Pre-K that could bring more conservative legislators along. She told me about “Parents as Teachers”, an effective non-classroom Pre-K program. We researched it, she helped me write a bill, and though the bill didn't pass, Debbie and many other allies helped in the effort to get Parents as Teachers funding into the budget. The following year our office handed the bill over to then-newly elected Rep. Chris Tuck to carry and push. With a lot of help from the education community, legislators including Republican Representative Bill Thomas, and from parents, that bill ultimately passed. In the years since, those of us who champion Pre-K have fought to retain funds in the budget for both classroom and Parents as Teachers Pre-K.
Foster Care Reform: I’m proud to have made strides in this area, because a child's chances in life shouldn’t be determined by whether they are born to wealth or a healthy family. With help from current and former foster youth at the non-profit Facing Foster Care in Alaska, we spearheaded a voluntary mentorship program for older youth who need someone to talk to as they prepare to go out on their own, with no reliable parents to call.
We also worked together to start FosterWear, a volunteer effort by quality clothing stores that offer discounts to foster youth. We did this because it's not good enough to find second hand clothes for first class children. And through volunteer efforts we’ve now matched roughly 1,000 computers with foster youth so they can have a chance in school, and even carry around pictures of people who are important to them as they lead disrupted lives.
This year we passed a comprehensive foster care reform law so youth and families have a truly fair chance to succeed and thrive. The bill passed with bi-partisan Support, including strong support from Reps. Ivy Spohnholz, Jason Grenn, Bryce Edgmon, Andy Josephson, and Senators Anna MacKinnon, John Coghill, Berta Gardner, Lyman Hoffman, Donny Olson, Peter Micciche, and Click Bishop. Many other legislators helped as well, and we received a huge amount of support from the community, advocacy groups, the Governor's Office, and a number of great Legislative Aides who followed the bill.
In the end the bill passed the Senate 18-0 and the House 37-1. This bill, we believe, is one of the most comprehensive in a nation where most foster care agencies fail, operate in crisis, are underfunded, and don't fairly serve youth and families.
Big Money Ruining Politics: Fighting Back
In 2004 I was the proud recipient of an F grade from the Chamber of Commerce for voting to prevent more influence in elections by lobbyists and wealthy donors. If you voted to limit campaign donation amounts, the State Chamber marked it against you. When I voted against letting lobbyists donate 30 times more money to politicians, they marked it against me. When I voted to keep the minimum wage up annually with inflation, they marked it against me. It was a proud F grade by a group whose biggest donors include ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips. Despite their group name, the State Chamber has a leadership group that uses the organization to campaign against candidates they feel won't reflexively do what the Chamber's biggest businesses want them to do.
And when the United States Supreme Court ruled that unlimited corporate and union money could be spent on elections, Hollis French and I teamed up to craft bills to at least require these big money groups reveal their largest donors in their ads. I felt strongly that the “disclaimer” should be read aloud on radio and TV ads, Hollis agreed, and we both added that provision to our bills. Hollis' version of the bill passed, and I worked in the House, where important provisions were eliminated in the House Finance Committee, to restore them. The amendment I filed passed by a narrow vote on the House Floor. I've missed having Hollis, his intelligence and his sense of right and wrong, in the Legislature.
That's Enough for Now
I've tried to support the things that create opportunity in life, dignity for those who face health problems or disabilities, and an economy that creates jobs.
Others in the Legislature will be there to stand up for these things. I've had my turn for a happy, and I hope, fruitful 16 years. I'm lucky to have had this opportunity, and hope to see you around town, or as I travel around Alaska. In January I won't be saying goodbye. I'll just be taking a break. And then I'll join you again in pushing for what's right.
Thank you again for all the support, all the kindness, and for tolerating these long newsletters. The next one will be short. Or at least shorter.
With Warm Regards,