Discover more from The Alaska Memo by Matt Buxton
GOP senators bash GOP-favored redistricting plan as ‘absolutely ridiculous’
"That border might as well be the Berlin Wall" said Anchorage Republican Sen. Roger Holland of the Chugach Mountains dividing Eagle River and South Anchorage.
Good afternoon, Alaska!
In this edition: The House has passed a budget on Saturday with the utterly unusual step of digging into the settlement budget to remove the money to settle the First Amendment lawsuit over the loyalty pledge firings, which itself was an utterly unusual settlement; Things have been a largely miserable affair as the Alaska Redistricting Board heads back to the drawing table, but at least we got a bright spot over the weekend when GOP senators bashed the GOP-favored map; The East Anchorage plaintiffs have also signaled their wariness with how things are starting to shape up; and the reading list.
House nixes settlement money
The House passed the operating budget on Saturday, advancing the Legislature’s one constitutionally required job after a long week of hearing (and mostly rejecting) amendments. Legislators rejected calls for a bigger PFD, leaving the state’s total planned payout at $2,600 split between the PFD and an energy rebate; they preserved the forward funding of K-12 education as well as fallback language in case a separate boost to the state’s per-student funding formula isn’t approved; They objected to several capital project requests and approved some others; extreme-right Republicans had a flurry of red-meat amendments, including firing Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink, that went nowhere; and they voted to withhold funding for state-funded abortions, a thing that the courts have already said is unconstitutional. So, you know, pretty much par for the course in a year where we’re projected to have a surplus.
But perhaps the most head-turning amendment came when the House voted to eliminate the roughly half-million dollars needed to pay the settlement in the First Amendment case brought by two former Alaska Psychiatric Institute doctors. The two doctors were fired in Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s now-infamous loyalty pledge firings that required non-union employees to pledge support for the governor’s political agenda if they wanted to keep their job. The ACLU, which represented the doctors, and the state inked a settlement that shielded Dunleavy and former chief of staff Tuckerman Babcock from personal liability. The ACLU, the state and legislators supportive of the spending all argued that breaking into the state’s settlement payments to pick what they want to fund sets bad precedent.
Supporters of the cut, however, have pointed out that there is a significant difference between this settlement and every other settlement: That a federal judge found that Gov. Dunleavy and Babcock’s behavior was so deeply egregious that they were personally responsible. That’s no small feat and it was a decision made at the summary judgement stage of the lawsuit no less, meaning that it was abundantly clear that the two had committed something very serious. The state has not been able to provide any other examples where a governor lost executive privilege at the summary judgement level. The state argues now that it was in the best interest of the state to settle the case as continuing could open up the state to new liabilities. We don’t know that for sure, but what we do know is that it effectively shielded Dunleavy and Babcock from any responsibility for what a judge had ruled they should be held personally liable for.
This is an administration that has wielded the Department of Law as a political cudgel—taking months off the recall effort with a dubious legal claim, spending heavily on a farfetched scheme to attack unions and sparred lengthily with the courts and Legislature over separation of powers—and it has long frustrated legislators. This settlement, which spares Dunleavy and Babcock of personal expense at the state’s expense, was too much for legislators to ignore.
“It’s political on day one of his administration, it’s political on the very last day of his administration. You can’t really ask the state to pay your personal liability and have it not be political,” said Rep. Matt Claman, the sponsor of the amendment, as was reported by the ADN.
It’s not clear what, if any, recourse the ACLU and the API doctors would have if the Legislature ultimately refused to fund the settlement because the settlement specifically says the payment is contingent on approval from the Legislature.
The budget now heads to the Senate, but if the API doctors and the state are hoping for a more receptive audience with the Senate then last week’s hearing in front of the Senate Finance Committee isn’t a good sign. Senators called the Department of Law before them to explain the scope and cost of all the politically motivated lawsuits triggered by the Dunleavy administration—more than $2 million just last year between the cost to litigate the cases and the judgements—and there was particular frustration when it came to the API settlement.
There, Sen. Bill Wielechowski laid out in clear terms just why everything about the API settlement was problematic.
“The state was found not liable. The governor and chief of staff were found personally liable and yet the state then agreed to settle and pay the governor’s and chief of staff’s personal attorney’s fees and the governor’s and chief of staff’s personal liability for settling here of hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. “That’s what’s troubling to so many of us. The state was found to not owe anything and the governor and the chief of staff were found personally liable and yet the state then turned around and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
He went on to wonder what, if any, legal advice the governor was getting.
“I guess it just sort of makes me wonder when I look at this and look at some of the other cases, how is the governor being advised?” he asked. “Is he being advised on whether these actions are unconstitutional? Or is he just disregarding legal advice or is even getting advice?”
The Department of Law official, citing attorney-client privilege, declined to answer.
GOP senators bash GOP-favored redistricting plan as ‘absolutely ridiculous’
The Alaska Redistricting Board’s return to the drawing table has been a largely miserable affair with heated testimony, bitter dustups between members of the board and naked partisanship as conservatives push increasingly strained logic for splitting the deeply conservative Eagle River.
A parade of conservatives has argued everything from bears and avalanches to septic tanks make the most logical pairing for Eagle River’s southern state house district not Eagle River’s northern state house district but the house district in South Anchorage, which is separated by the Chugach Mountains and a minimum of a 30-minute drive. The plan would essentially maintain the same Republican advantage from the maps that were struck down by the Alaska Supreme Court as a political gerrymander, and at least two of the board’s three-member conservative majority have already signaled support for it.
But not every Republican has been on board, including two people that likely know better than most: The two incumbent Republican senators who represent Eagle River and South Anchorage.
Sens. Roger Holland and Lora Reinbold, who would be paired together under the GOP-favored proposal known as Map 3B, both testified this weekend that the pairings made no sense and would make effectively representing the areas with their differing policy interests—which go beyond bears, avalanches and septic systems—a near-impossible task.
“Map 3B is absolutely ridiculous, this is all I can say when you’re trying to have us paired with Girdwood and the Indian/Whittier area,” said Reinbold, adding that she’s followed the lawsuits and thought Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews “did a very good job exposing the gerrymandering in the district. I believe Map 3B actually makes it much worse. … I strongly encourage keeping Eagle River together, we’re a very strong community and I think that is the one that makes the most sense.”
Map 3B was proposed by former Republican Party chair Randy Ruedrich as well as conservative board member Bethany Marcum. Marcum proposed the initial Senate pairings that the courts found intentionally advantaged Republicans at the expense of others. Board chair John Binkley has also signaled his support for the plan.
When asked how she would get from one end of the proposed Eagle River/South Anchorage senate district, Reinbold said it’d be by roads that cross through much of the rest of Anchorage. Going from the nearest edges of the Eagle River and South Anchorage districts would take about 30 minutes while going to the farthest reaches of the South Anchorage district, which reaches into Whittier, would take longer.
“Maybe at least a two-hour drive, which is ridiculous,” Reinbold said, adding that the only in-district connection would be the 21-mile Crow Pass Trail. “You could walk over the trail, but that’s ridiculous. The bottom line is driving two hours through the Anchorage municipality absolutely makes no sense, so I think there would be constitutional issues as well. That is a long, long way away. Our children wouldn’t be going to schools together. … I believe Map 3 will very much hurt Eagle River.”
Holland testified at length about the problems created by representing a Senate district with differing and competing areas, which he said is the case with his current Senate district that lumps East Anchorage and South Anchorage’s Hillside communities together. He acknowledged that the board has broad powers when it comes to interpreting what the Alaska Constitution is asking for with senate districts but said he didn’t believe the connection crossing the Chugach Mountains would stand up to scrutiny.
“I do believe Map 3B will have constitutional problems,” he said. “The idea that there’s a 33-mile contiguous border between Eagle River and South Anchorage in that Map 3B, that border might as well be the Berlin Wall for being impassable. … I do believe that (the courts) indicate contiguous as meaning access and flow. There is absolutely no flow of trade, commerce or anything between Eagle River and South Anchorage.”
He added that such a district would create representation issues for legislators. He noted that the East Anchorage and South Anchorage parts of his current district are often at odds. A single project in the East Anchorage community, which includes busy arterial streets, easily dwarfs anything that comes out of sparser Hillside areas, he said, and he’s worried it’d be worse under the GOP-favored map.
He said he favored Map 2, which was offered by the East Anchorage plaintiffs, because it kept similar communities together and fixed many of the problems he says have existed under the prior maps.
“Map Number 2 pairings, I thought what a great pairing. It really resolves, in my mind, a lot of the complications I had seen in District N,” he said, referring to his current Senate district. “I was saddened to see Map 3 rear its head. … As a senator having to represent Eagle River and South Anchorage, there are challenges to be a present, meaningful participant in the community when, by my count, I have to travel through or touch parts of 11 districts.”
The Alaska Redistricting Board is set to resume hearings on Wednesday and Thursday, where it’s expected to at least take a preliminary vote on which of the two plans it supports. It could also adopt an entirely different plan based on the feedback to the first two. The board had initially considered a plan that would’ve changed all eight of Anchorage’s state Senate districts but withdrew that plan last week to focus on plans requiring fewer changes.
Potential legal challenges on the horizon
The board has a deadline of Friday to update the Alaska Superior Court on its progress, but it’s already facing a threat of further legal challenges.
The East Anchorage plaintiffs last week sent a letter to the Alaska Redistricting Board warning that they were already straying away from the court’s instructions and could end up back in court.
“Any plan that perpetuates the political gerrymander recognized by the court, namely the fragmentation of Eagle River into two separate senate districts to increase representation by the majority political party in the Alaska Senate, exceeds the board’s limited scope of authority,” argues a letter sent by East Anchorage’s attorney Holly Wells to board counsel Matt Singer. “The board’s refusal to recognize its limited authority throughout this week’s proceedings, and its continued consideration of plans that repeat the political gerrymander rejected by the court cause grave concern for East Anchorage plaintiffs.”
The letter also points out that board chair John Binkley voted against the remedy for the other problem area identified by the Alaska Supreme Court. While the Alaska Supreme Court said that the fix for the Cantwell Carveout was simple, Binkley argued against the fix because he felt the court had gotten it wrong. Binkley and Marcum, the board’s two most conservative members, also voted in favor of including a proposed Senate map that would’ve required the board redraw the Anchorage-area House maps, which even the board’s attorneys said would likely be going too far.
The East Anchorage plaintiffs argue that these two cases “lends credence” to their concerns the board’s not following the rules.
“East Anchorage Plaintiffs respectfully request that you remind members of the board that the intent of the majority of its members to split Eagle River between two senate districts to increase the representation for the majority for the majority political party in the state Senate has been proven by plaintiffs and found by the court to be intentional and illegal,” Wells argues. “In other words, the illegality of the board’s fragmentation of Eagle River, and the intention behind it, is not in question or up for interpretation. The board’s impermissible intent does not somehow disappear simply because the board replaces one group of diluted voters with another.”
The letter closes with a warning that if the board pushes ahead with the plan to split Eagle River, then the East Anchorage plaintiffs will move forward with further litigation.
Did you know if the police spray pepper spray all over your home, it’s not their job to clean it up? And cleaning it up can include stripping the house of its carpets and drywall. From the ADN: The aftermath of a SWAT standoff upends life in a neighboring Anchorage apartment
“He also targeted pigs from a chartered helicopter,” is a line from the ADN’s look at Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s financial disclosures. Good work if you can get it, I suppose. From the ADN: Gov. Dunleavy’s hunting hobby took him to Texas and Alaska Peninsula in search of bear, quail and antelope last year
The already-tough Anchorage housing market has only grown tougher in recent years. From Alaska Public Media: It’s getting even harder to find a house in Anchorage. A local economist shares her struggle.
The least surprising news of all time. From the AP via KTUU: Alaska Legislature not on track to finish work in 90 days
The Anchorage Assembly looks like it’ll be maintaining the numbers to override Mayor Dave Bronson’s veto, but it’ll be getting two new conservative faces. From Alaska Public: Conservative Kevin Cross poised to replace Crystal Kennedy on Anchorage Assembly