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Day 95: 'Impossible to ignore'
The Alaska Supreme Court's long-awaited ruling on the redistricting saga is out and it's a doozy.
Happy Friday, Alaska! It’s Day 95 of the legislative session and Alaska Press Club week in Anchorage. Say hi!
In this edition: The long-awaited ruling from the Alaska Supreme Court is out today, and, hoo boy, it’s a doozy. At 112 pages long, it will take some time to digest everything, but let’s hit some of the high points that will greatly reshape Alaska’s decennial redistricting process into the future. Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee is pushing ahead with a reframing of the state’s financial picture. Also, some weekend watching.
Current mood: 😎
'Impossible to ignore'
“There is ample evidence of regional and political partisanship in this case.”
The Alaska Supreme Court delivered its final (for the most part) ruling on the Alaska redistricting trial that dominated so much of this newsletter’s coverage in early 2022. At 112 pages long, it will take some time to digest. Still, it’s chock-full of scathing assessments of the Alaska Redistricting Board and substantial updates to the state’s redistricting process moving forward.
The ruling doesn’t mince words about the actions of the Alaska Redistricting Board, which was led by a three-member Republican majority, or the legal arguments made in defense of a plan that would have boosted conservative Eagle River’s representation in the Alaska Senate, calling elements of the defense “specious” and “frivolous.”
The fundamentals of the case: While several challenges were brought against the Alaska Redistricting Board’s work, the leading case centers on the Alaska Redistricting Board’s attempt to put the two House districts covering Eagle River into two different Senate districts rather than a single, united Eagle River Senate district. After an initial ruling finding the pairing problematic sent the Alaska Redistricting Board back to the drafting table, the board’s three-member conservative majority attempted a similar scheme to boost Eagle River’s representation in the Senate.
Notably, the ruling doesn’t order any changes to the maps heading into the 2024 elections. Instead, it sets a very high bar for the Alaska Redistricting Board to get a third shot at redrawing the maps, putting Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews in charge of determining whether they can prove “good cause” to make new changes.
In the long term, the Alaska Supreme Court’s order will put guardrails on the redistricting process to prevent partisan gerrymandering.
“We expressly recognize that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional under the Alaska Constitution,” the Supreme Court’s order explains. “There is ample evidence of regional and political partisanship in this case.”
The ruling covers a long list of arguments brought against the Alaska Redistricting Board, highlighting comments by Board Member Bethany Marcum (who Gov. Mike Dunleavy appointed to the University of Alaska Board of Regents) about how the plan would give Eagle River “more representation” and that fact the only person among those who initially testified on the Senate pairings who was in favor of the split was GOP operative Randy Ruedrich, the former chair of the Alaska Republican Party.
“The Board’s justification for pairing a Muldoon House district and an Eagle River House district in the face of overwhelming public opposition from both communities is difficult to understand unless some form of regional or political partisanship were involved. … Considering the rushed manner in which the Board adopted the Senate District K pairing, the nearly unanimous public opposition, and the contrasting political effects of the pairing on Muldoon’s and Eagle River’s voting power, we agree with the superior court that the record supports the inference that partisanship was at play.”
In other words, you don’t have to explicitly say “I’m gerrymandering”—which was essentially what Alaska Redistricting Board’s legal team argued should be the bar—for the courts to find you were gerrymandering.
Aside from the political element, another big-ticket piece from the ruling is how the board should weigh the connections of different communities within the same city.
One of the critical arguments made by the Alaska Redistricting Board during its process and in the subsequent trial is that legislative districts with cities, like Anchorage, are automatically considered socio-economically integrated for the purpose of redistricting. Under that reasoning, the board’s conservative majority argued it could essentially do whatever it wanted with the shape of the House districts within Anchorage and the pairing of House districts to make Senate districts.
The board argued that the proposed pairing of Eagle River and East Anchorage’s South Muldoon district was okay because they were both within Anchorage.
In a ruling that will significantly shape Alaska’s redistricting process moving forward, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled otherwise. The order finds that communities with Anchorage do not automatically share socio-economic interests just because they are within the municipality’s boundaries. To consider the city’s dramatically different neighborhoods all the same, the Supreme Court finds, would open the door to more gerrymandering.
“Even if we disagreed with the strong evidence that the Muldoon and Eagle River areas constitute separate communities of interest, it would be unwise to hold, categorically, that separate communities of interest cannot exist within a single borough. As Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage likely will continue growing more populous and diverse. The historical, economic, or traditional significance of neighborhoods may change with time, and courts should remain open to hearing evidence that certain Anchorage neighborhoods are sufficiently different from one another that they constitute separate communities of interest. Categorically holding that no subregion of Anchorage can be a community of interest would expose Alaskans to gerrymandering.”
After skimming through the order today, those are the two most significant takeaways I found. So here’s what’s next:
While the Alaska Supreme Court appears wary of doing so, the ruling technically gives the Alaska Redistricting Board one last shot at attempting to redraw the maps. The maps used in the 2022 election came at the order of Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews, meaning they’re technically interim maps and not final.
The big issue, the Supreme Court order notes, is that the public was never allowed to challenge the constitutionality of the interim plan that was adopted shortly before the 2022 candidate filing deadline.
“Having concluded that the Board engaged in unconstitutional gerrymandering in its initial final redistricting plan and that the Board then did so again in its amended final redistricting plan, our remanding for yet another redistricting plan may be questioned,” it said. “But we will remand out of respect for the Board’s constitutional role in redistricting.”
However, the Alaska Redistricting Board must convince Judge Matthews that reopening the maps is warranted. If they can’t, the board will be directed to finalize the plan, opening the window for another round of challenges.
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The $620 million question
This week in the Legislature saw the House advance the operating budget with a nearly $600 million deficit—having failed to secure the votes to close the deficit by drawing down on the state’s savings account—sending the legislation over to the Senate with about a month left on the clock of the regular session.
The Senate Finance Committee got to quick work on Wednesday when it introduced its version of the operating budget and opened the window for public testimony. The most significant change they made was to strip out the entirety of the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend and the $175 million in one-time funding for schools. Both will eventually make their way back into the budget. Still, it’s an exercise designed by Senate Finance Committee co-Chair Sen. Bert Stedman to put the state of the state’s financial picture into clearer focus.
Without a dividend or supplemental education funding, the state would have a surplus of $1.4 billion. If they add in the smaller PFD favored by Stedman, equalling 25% of the spendable earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund (about $1,300) at $880 million, that would leave about $620 million left in the state’s budget for some mix of increased school funding, increased capital budget spending and other areas.
(Note: As I’m rereading this, I see the numbers from Wednesday’s hearing don’t match. If I figure out the reason, I’ll include it in a future memo.)
This comes on the heels of the latest version of the Senate Finance Committee’s PFD bill, which proposes a stepped approach to the size of the dividend. It’d start at that 25% mentioned above and ratchet up to 50% of the Alaska Permanent Fund’s spendable earnings (a PFD of about $2,700) if the state hits benchmarks for new revenue and savings.
Those benchmarks are $1.3 billion in additional revenue and $3.5 billion in the state’s main savings account ($1 billion more than where it currently stands) by 2031. However, several senators on the committee recoiled at the size of the benchmarks, worrying they’re unrealistic.
From my perspective, I think that’s the point.
Reading between the lines: Sen. Stedman and several other centrist legislators have adamantly opposed increasing taxes to pay out a dividend (and, no, they don’t really buy the argument that PFD cuts are de facto taxes). While we’ve seen some significant movement on that front with Gov. Dunleavy set to introduce a sales tax, this latest exercise of the operating budget and the PFD bill shows just how big the numbers are when it comes to balancing a budget when half of the Alaska Permanent Fund’s spendable earnings are going to the dividend. A sales tax, particularly a sales tax with exemptions on things like groceries, wouldn’t come close to filling that gap while also meeting the state’s needs into the future.
However, what this all means for this year’s budget is hard to say.
I’m a sucker for any behind-the-scenes look at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop (also, the single-seasoned Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge reality show is excellent).
Have a nice weekend, y’all!