June 3, 2015 (Issue 16)
On behalf of the legislative branch of government in Alaska, I am SO sorry.
I've heard some grizzled Alaska political observers lament they haven't seen it so bad since 1981. I've heard some say it's never been this bad, ever.
I grew up reading Mike Doogan's legislative newsletters. Mike was an Anchorage Democrat in the Alaska House and he wrote the best Alaska political commentary I've ever read. In his last term, he broke down a special session on oil taxes, and it does good double duty for where we are now:
All I can say is, gloriosky. I’ve been to two goat ropings and a county fair and I’ve never seen anything like this before.
Actually, I’ve been watching the Alaska Legislature since I worked as a page in the earthquake special session in 1964 and this is as weird as I’ve ever seen. It’s like watching Godzilla devour Tokyo, get a Shinto temple caught is his throat and hornk the whole thing up again.
On one hand we have Godzilla hornking up a Shinto temple; on the other, we have Cindy Smith, a longtime and now retired legislative staffer, with Twitter-poetry for the occasion:
The 2015 legislative session is one we'll be talking about for decades, in a very bad, no good, "please, dear God, never again" kind of way.
The tale of woe is simple: the legislature hasn't passed a (real) budget. No budget means government shutdown.
Government shutdown? What was once quarantined to the political swamp of Washington, D.C. has somehow vectored to Alaska. It's like political Ebola.
I want to attempt a rundown of how we got into this mess and our options (ideally, solutions) going forward. And this is very important: I want to do it without invoking or implying blame.
Basically, there are three groups of people with power, whose votes are needed to pass a funded budget: House Republicans, House Democrats, and Senate Republicans. Barring extraordinary tactics (such as unilaterally tapping into Permanent Fund money), you can't pass a budget without all three. Fact. Another fact: if you don't pass a budget by July 1, State of Alaska government shuts down.
When the legislature finished its regular session April 21, we hadn't passed a (funded) budget. As with hockey or soccer, as with the legislature, if it's a scoreless draw, you plow into overtime.
The governor called the legislature into its first special session, in Juneau. The legislature promptly turned around and told the governor, "We don't need no stinking special session!" By which I mean, the legislature voted itself into a 12-day recess — some, mostly Democrats, called it a "vacation."
After the 12-day recess, the legislature reconvened, but in Anchorage (which, by the way, may have been illegal).
Things started slow. But by the end of last week, you could feel the refreshing winds of progress. The big breakthrough was Friday. House Republicans and House Democrats struck a compromise. It was consummated 1 a.m. Saturday morning by a 38-2 bipartisan vote. (I voted yes.) Hope! Progress!
I will let Alaska Dispatch News' Nat Herz describe what happened next:
A budget deal painstakingly negotiated in the Alaska House dropped dead on arrival in the Senate on Saturday, raising doubts about Legislature’s ability to finish its business before layoff notices are mailed to 10,000 state workers Monday.
Basically, Senate Republicans said, "No thanks," and introduced a budget of their own. The Senate Republicans' budget was and is a non-starter for House Republicans and House Democrats, and Governor Walker, too, for that matter. That was two days ago, and that's where we are now, the doldrums of impasse.
All the while, the toll of political dysfunction grows:
- Alaska's AAA bond rating is imperiled as Wall Street looks at this mess and wonders, “Are these people even credit worthy?”
- Every department of Alaska government is burning time and energy setting up contingency plans for a partial government shutdown.
- Perhaps the most odious of these three, 10,000 state employees are receiving pink slips (as required by contract) because they may be laid off within a month (July 1).
Forget 1981. Forget Godzilla hornking up a Shinto temple. This may be the worst we've ever seen by the Alaska Legislature.
The path forward? Simple: compromise. Work towards the middle. If both sides are unhappy, that means progress. (My unhappiness? No Medicaid expansion. Ugh. But that's part of compromise.)
The governor has brought in a mediator (an excellent idea), and hopefully negotiations accelerate. Let us hope that the end of our long statewide political nightmare is near.
Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins
Rep. JKT Media Management
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