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Day 50: Legislature nixes pay raises for Dunleavy and his cabinet
Also, a path forward on education funding is coming together. And the House Judiciary Committee is operating about like you'd expect it to.
Good morning, Alaska. It’s day 50 of the 2023 legislative session.
In this edition: With an evening vote by the House, the Legislature has now passed legislation to reject pay raises for Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his cabinet, giving themselves enough time to override a potential veto. Some forward progress on the education funding discussion. The daily schedule. And another look into the dysfunction that is the House Judiciary Committee.
Current mood: ☀️
Legislature nixes pay raises for Dunleavy, cabinet
In a Monday-night floor session, the House joined the Senate in unanimously passing the legislation needed to reject proposed pay increases for Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom and his cabinet ranging from $15,000 to $31,000 annually.
The pay raises came at the recommendation of the State Officers Compensation Commission, a group that has been criticized for becoming increasingly political and anti-legislator with Gov. Dunleavy’s appointments, and would become permanent on March 25 unless specifically opposed by the Legislature.
Dunleavy could still veto the legislation, but the Legislature has given themselves just enough time to override a veto if necessary. If the raises are ultimately rejected, it would mark the second time in as many years that the Legislature has rejected the commission’s recommendations.
In 2022, the Legislature voted down what would have been a pay cut for legislators (slightly higher pay with significantly less per diem). Some commissioners backed the move because they felt legislators ought to be punished as a whole for the interminable special sessions, but legislators said it would accomplish little other than make it so only independently wealthy people could serve in the Legislature.
This time around, the commission didn’t address legislator pay at all.
While that was certainly a motivator for some of the votes, the House minority also staked out opposition to the pay raises based on the still-unresolved issue of school funding.
“Having just heard from our Anchorage constituents over the weekend, it is even more clear that our spending priorities should be focused first and foremost on increasing the base student allocation to a meaningful level,” said Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, in a prepared statement.
Under the commission’s report, the governor’s annual salary would increase to $176,000 from $145,000, the lieutenant governor’s annual salary would increase to $140,000 from $125,000, and commissioners would go to about $168,000 from $141,160. In a House Finance Committee hearing, it was explained that the raises amounted to a 2% raise for each year since the governor and the cabinet last received a pay raise.
School funding might be taking a step forward
In a news conference hosted by the House minority caucus last week, legislators took note of the lack of meaningful progress on either school funding or improved public employee retirement and said to look to the “minority of the majority” for who’s holding things up. That would be the Republican-led House Majority’s most conservative members, who’ve met the state’s latest challenges with little more than reflexive opposition to the proposed solutions without really offering any meaningful, real-world alternatives.
That’s playing out all over the House right now, but a key example of that would be Eagle River Rep. Jamie Allard as the co-chair of the House Education Committee where all school funding legislation will need to pass through. On Monday, during a hearing on Rep. Dan Ortiz’s legislation to increase the BSA by $1,250, Allard took issue with all the talk about cutting teachers when there are plenty of schools to close.
“In your comments, one of the very first things you said is, ‘We’re going to have to cut teachers,’ and that seems like the narrative. If we say that, it alerts the public and it’s alarming because we have so many buildings that should be closed down to save money there first,” she said. “Why do you go to ‘let’s cut the teachers’ and what guarantee do we have that funds are going to stay in the classroom. Short answer please.”
Ortiz replied that teacher cuts are a big talking point because it’s a reality that many districts are facing. When it comes to the supposed ease of shutting down schools, he noted that several schools in Southeast are on the table for closures, but noted that they will likely come at a cost for students. He pointed out an example where an elementary school is set to be closed and integrated into a local high school, which doesn’t have a playground.
Other legislators pointed out how unworkable that solution is for parts of the state.
“If you shut down schools in some of the communities that I represent, nobody goes to school. Period,” said Rep. CJ McCormick, D-Bethel, to which Allard muttered that that wasn’t the district she was talking about.
The combative tone of Allard, who seems to be particularly concerned by the conservative “culture war” around public schools, stood in sharp contrast to Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, who is the committee’s other co-chair.
To be clear, as the leader of the informal bipartisan caucus of freshman legislators who has already signaled interest in raising school funding, Ruffridge is definitely not part of that “minority of the majority.” Unlike Allard (who also can’t seem to be bothered to learn how to pronounce Ruffridge’s last name), Ruffridge recognized the impacts that the impending shortfalls will have to his school district (increasing class sizes, elimination of athletic directors, pool managers and theater technicians to name a few) and said he was interested in finding common ground on education funding.
One area that both he and Ortiz shared interest in is the amount of additional tasks and duties the Legislature has put on schools without providing additional funding. Ortiz pointed to the recently passed Alaska READS Act, which he voted against, as a major unfunded mandate on schools. The Legislation included a mere $30 increase to the base student allocation, which is already being erased by inflation and expiring covid money.
“We’re very good at adding added responsibilities and added tasks to our schools,” Ortiz said, noting that many are well intentioned, “but, in the end, we’re very good at providing unfunded mandates.”
Ruffridge said getting to the bottom of just how much it will really cost districts to fully implement the Alaska READS Act, which calls for additional tutoring and individual reading plans for what could be a vast majority of students not hitting reading benchmarks, would be a good starting point for the school funding conversation.
Which, hey, is better than yelling about closing schools.
Follow the thread: House Education Committee on the BSA
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The daily schedule
Senate Finance is in at 9 a.m. to hear SB 58, Medicaid eligibility for postpartum mothers; SB 55, extend the state medical board
House Fisheries is in at 10 a.m. to go over HB 92, fishermen’s fund: vessel owner claims
House Energy meets at 10:15 to hear HB 74, Geothermal resources
Legislative Budget and Audit meets at 12:30 to “Presentation: Approve Subordination Agreement for 3000 C Street Suite 105, Anchorage, Alaska”
House Transportation meets at 1 p.m. for HB 81, transfer of death title for vehicles and boats
House Finance is in at 1:30 for a hearing on the supplemental budget
Senate Transportation meets at 1:30 for SB62, electric-assisted bikes
House Health and Social Services meets at 3 p.m. for HB 58, adult home care; HB 59, Medicaid eligibility for postpartum mothers; HB 60 runaways shelters; HB 17 contraceptive coverage. They’re holding public testimony on the first three bills.
House State Affairs meets at 3 p.m. to hold its first hearing on HB 22, the retirement benefits bill for peace officers and fire fighters
Senate Health and Social Services meets at 3:30 for a confirmation hearing with Health Commissioner Heidi Hedberg, including public testimony. They also have SB 8, repeal the certificate of need program; and SB 44, naturopath licensing
Senate State Affairs meets at 3:30 to hear SB 19, elections and ballots; and SB 1, elections and ballots, voting and security
The House Judiciary Committee seems… off
What do you get when you load a committee with Reps. David Eastman, Jamie Allard, Ben Carpenter and Sarah Vance? A committee that takes nearly an hour and a half getting wrapped around the axle on hypothetical situations dreamed up by Eastman on the first of five amendments to a crime bill. Or, in simpler words, dysfunction.
The House Judiciary Committee was set to take up amendments on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s latest tough-on-crime bill that beefs up sentences for several drug-related crimes, particularly aimed at the opioid crisis and fentanyl. It had five amendments on the agenda, with hopes of getting to second bill later in the day.
Instead, it made it through just one.
At one point, the committee was debating whether to replace the word “deliver” drugs to an incapacitated or otherwise unaware person with “cause to ingest.” Eastman’s thinking was, well, I’m not entirely sure, but it took up a massive amount of time with Rep. Allard getting so confused that she had to ask the Department of Law’s John Skidmore how to vote (he said deliver is the standard language everyone is used to, but it seemed like it ultimately wasn’t a massive game changer in either direction).
It frequently seemed like Rep. Vance lost control of the committee as Allard ran wild, frequently forgetting or disregarding the Legislature’s rules for running a committee while frequently taking the bait on Eastman’s… unusual thought process. That thought process, it shouldn’t be forgotten, is exactly why Vance invited Eastman to be on the committee despite his status as a caucus-less legislator and has supported his continued membership on the committee despite Those Comments.
At least the reality of the committee seemed to dawn on Rep. Vance who, in a tone that I haven’t heard since she was last chiding a bunch of high schoolers on social media for failing to use her proper legislative title, said with only 5 minutes left that they’d wrapping up with four of the five amendments unresolved and apologies to Rep. George Rauscher for not getting to his bill.
Follow the thread: The House Judiciary Committee does House Judiciary Committee things