Discover more from The Alaska Memo by Matt Buxton
The winners and losers of the session
Let's look at how the big power players all fared.
Good afternoon, Alaska!
In this edition: It’s been about a week since the Alaska Legislature barreled into the 121-day limit for the legislative session, sending things to overtime where $34.2 million in priority spending helped grease the wheels and get things done. There are a ton of takeaways to break down and digest from this year, but in today’s edition, we’ll be looking at how the chambers of the Legislature and governor fared in the end-game of the session and a bit of what’s next.
Current mood: 🧑🏽🌾
The Senate’s in the driver’s seat for now
The 17-member bipartisan Senate supermajority played an incredible game of hardball on the budget this year and won. The Senate held the operating budget in the Senate Finance Committee until the last possible moment before passing it to the House in a take-or-leave-it-for-the-special-session gambit. They did end up in a special session—but just barely—with the House effectively caving in on its hardliner demands for a $2,700 dividend on the first day and passing the budget in return for about $34 million in priority projects.
It was a risky maneuver, given that we could have been mired in an unproductive special session for 30 days. However, some of the more experienced hands in the House recognized that reality, conceding a special session wouldn’t change the underlying situation and would only increase the uncertainty at a time when it sure looks like the federal government is heading to a default of its own.
However, while it’s easy to chalk it up to the Senate’s experienced leadership crew that saw the cracks and capitalized upon them, we shouldn’t overlook the most significant contributor to how the session wrapped up: The state of the state’s finances.
The biggest point is that the state’s financial picture doesn’t support a $2,700 PFD—or even the $1,300 PFD ultimately agreed upon in the long term—without revenue or budget cuts. It looked like there was the money to pay for the bigger PFD when the House Finance Committee advanced its version of the budget, but the revised spring revenue forecast shot a hole in that picture quickly.
The Senate’s conservative approach to spending and managing finances will win in that situation. But if there was the money—as there was just one year ago thanks to high oil prices—it’s entirely possible that Sen. Bert Stedman and company could once again find themselves on the losing end of a vote for a larger dividend.
Winners: 17-member supermajorities, the fiscal reality
Losers: The PFD
The Alaska Memo by Matt Buxton is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The Caucus of Equals strikes again
After watching the old Republican Senate Majority fumble its way through the session as a Caucus of Equals, where folks like Sen. Lora Reinbold essentially forced the rest of the majority to start working with Democrats if they wanted to get anything done, the House Majority took the same approach this year.
And it’s playing out in about the same fashion.
While allowing members to vote however they want whenever they want while holding onto positions of power sounds like a good thing, it’s not exactly that helpful in getting anything accomplished. Beyond the early staking of their flag on the $2,700 PFD, the House never had any unified voice on policy measures.
That left us taking cues from extreme-right legislators like Rep. Ben Carpenter on fiscal policy, Rep. Jamie Allard on education policy, and Rep. Sarah Vance on legal policy when wondering about the House’s direction on those issues. That none of those individuals’ priority legislation passed the House—with Rep. Vance’s ban on Israel boycotts failing in a profoundly embarrassing fashion on the floor—tells us they might not be the thought leaders of the House Majority.
Regarding end-game negotiations, it also seemed like the House’s Caucus of Equals became the Caucus of Equal Opportunities to Pick Someone Off. The final vote on the operating budget, frankly, didn’t make all that much sense until you start to look at who brought home the particularly big bucks for their communities.
It’s also hard to overlook the fact that the House Majority didn’t have the votes to pass the budget and that it was the 16-member House Minority, which is generally aligned with the Senate already, that played a crucial role in getting it across the finish line.
Just what that means for the future of the caucus will be interesting. There’s frustration from all angles here. Far-right legislators who were once in the minority are fuming that they’re not getting their way now that they’re in the majority. New legislators are frustrated by the openly hollow reality of politics.
Here’s what Rep. Justin Ruffridge, widely seen as one of the more moderate members of the House Republicans who ultimately voted against passing the budget, told the Anchorage Daily News:
“The last three days it’s kind of been a question mark. What is it that we stand for? Do we stand for fiscal conservatism? Do we stand for a fiscal plan? Do we stand for good policy? Education? I think the answer to that is kind of none of it.”
That’s what happens when you have 23 legislators all pulling in a different direction.
Winners: The House Minority, general chaos
Losers: Unrealistic expectations about the legislative process, the PFD
And what about Dunleavy?
Yeah, what about Gov. Mike Dunleavy? We heard he helped facilitate a last-minute meeting between the House and Senate on budget negotiations. However, he was absent on the final day—off to a bear hunt—and we still haven’t heard how he feels about the budget, a big deal when he still wields the veto pen over the budget.
Perhaps he’s saving it for when he rolls out the sales tax bill, which he hyped up more than a month ago.
Not exactly setting high expectations for the talked-about October special session on the fiscal plan.
Winners: My continued use of that picture
Losers: Anyone hoping for a bit of certainty for once