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Day 119: 'An exercise in futility'
The Legislature heads to overtime with little apparent movement on the intractable differences between the House and Senate. Meanwhile, the Alaska Redistricting Board won't give it another go.
Happy sunny Monday afternoon, Alaska!
In this edition: The Alaska Legislature continues to lumber toward overtime without any indication there’s been movement on the incompatible positions of the House and the Senate on the budget. By most indications, the 17-member supermajority in the Senate seems to have the upper hand over the narrow GOP majority in the House, but there’s still time left on the clock. Meanwhile, the Alaska Redistricting Board met today to discuss the potential next steps on the litigation and mercifully chose to bring it to an end without one last doomed attempt to gerrymander things… though one member thought they should at least give it a shot.
Current mood: 😎
‘An exercise in futility’
The Alaska Supreme Court’s final ruling in the trial against the Alaska Redistricting Board was scathing, finding the board had twice committed an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander that would have advantaged Eagle River conservatives at the expense of everyone else. But as harsh as it was in its assessment of the Alaska Redistricting Board, the court was ultimately deferential to the board’s constitutional duties to draw the state’s maps and left the door open to another round of changes.
Doing so would have been a tremendous long shot as it would have required the board to convince Anchorage Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews—who was even harsher in his rulings than the Supreme Court justices—that such changes were needed and within the constitutional parameters of redistricting.
The Alaska Redistricting Board today decided unanimously that it wasn’t worth trying and adopted the maps the Alaska Supreme Court ordered to be used in the 2022 elections as the permanent maps for the next decade.
“It would be disingenuous of me to say that I agreed with everything in the court decision, particularly with respect to many of the representations of fact that were included in there,” said member Budd Simpson, who Gov. Mike Dunleavy appointed. “I think it would be disruptive and an exercise in futility, honestly, to attempt to make any substantive changes.”
Chair John Binkley, appointed in 2020 by former Senate President Cathy Giessel, agreed with Simpson and generally sounded very done with redistricting.
“I think it will cause the least amount of confusion for the public, both in terms of what might happen with redrawing lines and for legislators to focus on the important things they’re doing now and not worry about if they’re shuffled into another district,” he said. “It saves the state money and resources as well if we simply adopt this plan.”
The only member who spoke in favor of attempting to alter the maps further was board member Bethany Marcum, who was reappointed to the board by Gov. Dunleavy after her appointment to the University of Alaska Board of Regents was rejected by the Legislature last week. Marcum was the key architect behind the Eagle River pairings, whose statement about the split giving Eagle River the opportunity for “more representation” was cited throughout the rulings.
“I do think that we should have the opportunity to make the plan, and I don’t think it’s a heavy lift to do that. I think that we should be able to discuss whether or not there’s a better way to comply with what the court decided,” Marcum said. “Eagle River with Eagle River, the court has made that clear, so if that’s the case, there are other ways we can suggest those pairings.”
She didn’t get into her problems with the interim map but argued that the board adopting the court-mandated plan would effectively hand over its mapping powers to the courts.
No one agreed with her assessment.
Board member Melanie Bahnke, who former Chief Justice Joel Bolger appointed, pointed out that the board had only adopted two Senate plans during its deliberations—one that the board picked that was rejected by the courts and the one that the court ordered the board use—and if there were a better third plan, it should have been presented at that time.
“If there were other plans that we should have considered, we should have done it when we had that opportunity the second time around,” she said. “I don’t think it’d be the best use of the people’s resources to put forward another plan.”
Even Binkley disagreed with Marcum’s claims they were somehow giving up their powers, noting that the board had adopted both the plans and that the interim plan was a board plan, just not the plan favored by the board’s majority.
While Marcum argued in favor of continuing the mapping process, she said she would support the other members, and the board ultimately voted 5-0 in favor of adopting the plan as the final plan for the next decade.
Aside from some leftover court work on the attorney fees, this round of litigation has ended. However, that’s not necessarily the final word on redistricting. Adopting the final plan opens a window for third-party groups to bring challenges against the map. This window didn’t exist ahead of the 2022 elections because of how close it was decided before the candidate filing deadline.
That said, challenging the current legislative district layout would be an uphill battle, given the court’s lengthy explanation of why Eagle River should stick together in a single political subdivision and why East Anchorage should remain as-is.
Follow the thread: The Alaska Redistricting Board meets
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Legislature likely headed to overtime
Things in Juneau seem to have a somewhat muted tone and pace for the final mad dash to the finish line. Things have stalled out around the budget as the Senate continues to push forward with its take-it-or-leave-it-for-a-special-session budget, and the Republican-led House continues not to know what it wants beyond a hefty dividend.
The Senate’s approach to the budget has sidestepped the typical end-of-session dance. Instead of a conference committee that adopts an agreement negotiated behind closed doors, the Senate has held onto the budget with the premise being they can amend the budget to reflect whatever deal is negotiated behind closed doors.
While most signs point to this whole maneuvering leading us to overtime in the form of a 10-day extension (which is very unlikely) or a 30-day special session with the governor, this gambit is likely the Senate’s best bet at taking advantage of the fractured inner dynamics of the House Majority and bringing things to a close. The House has presented a generally unified front on a more significant dividend, but it’s grown increasingly apparent as the session has continued that the state cannot afford a larger dividend with any sense of stability without new revenue or deeper cuts. Neither of these has advanced this session. A concurrence vote could peel off a handful of moderate majority legislators who would instead finalize the budget than drag Alaskas toward another government shutdown. Still, it’s possible the House would adjourn altogether without taking it up (though that could be put to a vote).
That would send the Legislature into a special session, but what exactly would be different other than the time on the clock is unclear.
Why it matters
The critical problem behind all this brinksmanship is that the House doesn’t even have the votes in the House to get what they want. Paying out that bigger dividend requires the state to tap into the Constitutional Budget Reserve, which requires a three-quarter vote in each chamber. When the House held that vote earlier this year, they came up seven votes short, with the bipartisan House Minority Coalition arguing that deficit spending is a bad idea when there’s no fiscal plan.
In the month since that vote, little has changed.
The GOP Majority has not advanced any meaningful pieces of a fiscal plan—its Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Ben Carpenter angrily announced Friday that he was pulling the plug on revenue after the House Finance Committee’s moderates changed a non-binding spending cap bill to give the state more room to grow—and it appears little has been done in terms of winning over votes.
Who knows, maybe holding their breath ‘til they turn blue will change things.
It’ll certainly drag us a bit closer to a government shutdown.