Discover more from The Alaska Memo by Matt Buxton
Two cases wrap up in redistricting trial with more to come
Plus, the Legislature gets serious on the Alaska Permanent Fund... and their own pay, Dunleavy's State of the State summed up better than I can and some relevant weekend watching.
Happy Friday, Alaska!
In this edition: What was expected to be a relatively quiet day in the redistricting trial turned out to be pretty busy as the Valdez and Mat-Su plaintiffs wrapped up with rebuttal testimony and the Calista plaintiffs got underway… there just wasn’t a lot new to report on, so I’ll use this opportunity to bookmark where the Valdez and Mat-Su cases stand; Let’s touch on some of the big legislative news of the week starting with the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee’s hiring of an intendent investigator on the Angela Rodell firing; the State of the State and a duo who summed up my feelings better than I could; the Legislature’s unanimous refusal to accept pay cuts and what it says about some of their efforts to pull up the ladder on poor Alaskans; an index of this week’s twitter threads with some bonuses; and weekend watching.
Spice level: 🌶️🌶️
Legislative day: 11
Redistricting trial day: 6
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A breather on redistricting
Today’s trial served as rebuttal testimony for the Valdez and Mat-Su plaintiffs. It was largely an exercise in reinforcing the arguments that we’ve heard throughout the week and there wasn’t a heckuva lot new to report at this point. There were several times today where even Judge Thomas Matthews said something to the effect of “I get the point” as the sides were quibbling over a question that had been asked and answered many times before by many different witnesses. With today marking a wrap on the witness portion of the challenges brought by the Mat-Su Borough and the city of Valdez, I wanted to take a moment to take stock in where things stand.
At the heart of the challenge is that the Mat-Su Borough doesn’t like the city of Valdez and the city of Valdez doesn’t like the Mat-Su Borough, and they both challenge the Alaska Redistricting Board’s decision to pair them together into House District 29, which is about 70% Mat-Su Borough. They’re both seeking a court-ordered breakup that would have big ramifications for the rest of the state, with a realignment that would likely see House District 36—which unites Interior Athabascan communities—completely redrawn. That’s why a group centered around Doyon, Limited has intervened in defense of the current maps.
The Mat-Su and Valdez plaintiffs this week focused in on the following key points:
There’s zero socio-economic connection between Mat-Su and Valdez, especially when it comes to their political interests (oil and gas property taxes, fish taxes, port funding).
That the better fit for Valdez is with the Richardson Highway district that spans from Glenallen to Fairbanks and all the way around grabbing all the Interior Athabascan communities. They propose maps that would reconfigure the district, removing the Interior Athabascan communities with variations that would see them paired with Inupiaq communities on the Bering Strait.
That consideration for municipal boundaries ought to supersede consideration of the boundaries created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. They argue that the precedent gives more weight to municipal boundaries and Alaska Native Corporations are not due any special consideration under law.
That the board bungled the process from the get-go. Board members approached the process with specific goals—Board Chair John Binkley wanted to keep Fairbanks’ population within its five House districts—that had a cascade of consequences that left Valdez out in the cold. The timing also prevented the board from considering alternatives.
That the board was giving preferential treatment to Doyon, Limited and Ahtna, Inc., which both sought to have their communities united in a single House district, that when paired with the last-minute decision on Fairbanks’ excess population meant there was no room for Valdez. On this point, the Valdez plaintiffs argue a series of texts between board member Nicole Borromeo and folks with ties to Doyon, Limited are evidence of favoritism. They also suggest board counsel Matt Singer’s ongoing work with Ahtna biased his legal advice.
The Alaska Redistricting Board and the Doyon intervenors group counter the above points with the following arguments:
Valdez and Mat-Su are at least relatively socio-economically integrated, citing that both communities have some reliance on the oil and gas industry (Valdez through its TAPS infrastructure and Mat-Su through its number of oil and gas industry workers). They’ve also highlighted road connections and the fact that Mat-Su is home to the Valdez’s closest big box stores.
That the cultural differences between the Interior Athabascan communities and the coastal Inupiaq communities should be respected. They argue that the current layout of the rural Interior district is relatively socio-economically integrated, arguing that the Athabascan communities share more in common with the Richardson corridor communities (particularly the Ahtna communities) than with neighboring Bering Strait communities. They also argue that the Valdez plaintiffs are poor judges of the complexities of the Alaska Native communities.
They argue that the plans do respect municipal boundaries and that the boundaries of the Alaska Native Corporations, as well as the rural school districts, ought to carry weight when drawing maps and considering socio-economic integration.
They’ve defended the process, arguing that the record the Valdez and Mat-Su plaintiffs are using for their allegations don’t paint a full and clear picture of everything that happened. They don’t argue with the fact that Chair Binkley wanted to keep the Fairbanks communities together (a move that would have required each district to be about 4.3% above the ideal population) but argue that it wasn’t a fatal flaw. Board member Bethany Marcum testified at length about last-minute attempts to accommodate Valdez in any district outside of the Mat-Su, including Anchorage, but said it wasn’t possible.
As for the texts that the Valdez plaintiffs argue is evidence of preferential treatment, member Borromeo defended it as being responsive to public outreach. The Doyon intervenors argue that it was well within their right to engage aggressively with the board and shape the maps but deny getting preferential treatment because of it. As for Singer’s ongoing involvement with Ahtna, board chair Binkley largely attempted to shrug it off as unimportant.
The trial is set to resume on Monday at 9 a.m. and expected to run through most of the week. Closing oral arguments are expected to occur on either Feb. 10 or Feb. 11.
$100,000 and subpoenas
The Legislative Budget and Audit Committee on Thursday unanimously approved a contract up to $100,000 and subpoena power in the Legislature’s ongoing effort to get some answers on why the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation’s Board of Trustees fired executive director Angela Rodell. This comes after the panel grilled Board of Trustees Chair Craig Richards over the firing and the alleged involvement of Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who’s claimed ignorance of the actions. Suffice it to say, Richards’ supercilious and dismissive attitude didn’t play well with legislators who’re primarily concerned in the overall health of the Alaska Permanent Fund.
Given the governor’s previous efforts to overdraw the fund, the fund’s investigation of overdrawing it in accordance with the governor’s previous demands and accusations that Dunleavy definitely did coordinate with the fund over the firing, legislators are right to be concerned about the fund. After all, the fund accounts for a vast majority of the state’s budget and its health will have a big say in the state’s financial future.
“We just want to make sure that the fund stays healthy and not affected politically by any undue political influence either by the board of trustees or by the executive branch,” said Sen. Natasha von Imhof, the Anchorage Republican who chairs the committee. “It was set up to be politically protected and apolitical and we want to make sure it stays that way.”
There’s no firm deadline for the report to be produced, but they’re hoping to have it in hand by the end of the legislative session in case changes to state law are needed.
Even Gov. Dunleavy is tired
I was planning on revisiting the governor’s State of the State address, but Pat Race and Scott Kendall said pretty much everything that I planned to say (but better and less typo-filled) in their excellent op-ed published with the Anchorage Daily News this week: Even Gov. Dunleavy is tired of the Dunleavy agenda
In it, they note that devoid of context the governor delivered what was a solid, optimistic state of the state. It’s when you consider the context of what Dunleavy’s past three years have been and where the next decade will go if the governor gets his way that the shine starts to wear off. As he was busy touting a big PFD, strong educational opportunities, a value of rural Alaska, support for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and support for foster children, the rest of us were remembering each of the times that he had targeted those for deep cuts through his budget proposals and his veto pen.
Those cuts were either refused or at least curbed thanks to the resistance of the Legislature and the political pressure that gave rise to the recall effort:
The state of our state is strong — not because of three harrowing years under the Dunleavy administration, but because of the Alaskans who had the courage to thwart him.
It is only because the Legislature blocked all of Gov. Dunleavy’s major policy proposals — and because of significant federal investment championed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Congressman Don Young — that Alaska is in a position to turn towards a brighter future.
Thanks to the many Alaskans whose work and advocacy have made this state stronger and better for their presence of mind and persistence. You might have the urge to decry the governor’s speech as a naked attempt to gaslight Alaskans. Which is true. But also keep in mind that this State of the State speech was also a vindication — proof that even Gov. Dunleavy is tired of the Dunleavy agenda.
Pay cut rejected
Just as Alaska State Officers Compensation Commission member Johnny Ellis warned would happen, legislators this week rejected the group’s proposal to enact a steep and largely punitive cut to overall pay. Not only did they reject it, but they did it unanimously with plenty of votes for an override in case Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoes the legislation. It’s also not gone unremarked upon that Dunleavy cut funding for legislator per diem while leaving his own per diem untouched.
While the plan would have seen base legislator pay increased, it would have steeply cut per diem, required a down-to-the-dollar accounting of how it was spent and bar legislators from collecting per diem during any special session called on their own. Legislators of all walks opposed the plan, arguing that serving in the Legislature makes it nearly impossible to hold a regular job—particularly when the governor keeps calling them into special session. Several legislators warned that such a pay cut would make it so only independently wealthy people could serve in the Legislature and that it would drive out younger legislators with families.
On the one hand, I see the point. The uncertainty of session is costly, and there’s certainly value in having legislators from many walks of life (though, I would argue that, for the most part, the legislators we currently have are relatively well off).
On the other hand, it’s a bad look. Particularly bad, in my opinion, for legislators who’ve regularly opposed legislation and other measures that seek to improve the wellbeing and economic status of poor Alaskans. While we can all harp on legislators collecting paychecks and per diem that is well above the average Alaskans income, there are many that I believe would argue that this kind of pay is what all Alaskans should have the opportunity to attain. To those people, I say fine. Fight the good fight. But to those who back punitive measures that side with businesses over workers—who attack unions and who wonder who would bag our groceries if the state dared to provide essential workers with tuition assistance—that I can’t help but see them pulling up the ladder on Alaskans as they look out for themselves.
Live tweet index
At one moment during this week’s redistricting trial, we had a lengthy back and forth over what “significant” means in terms of a spending “a significant amount of time” doing something. Does it mean a lot of time? Or that it was quality time regardless of the quantity of time? It reminded me of this old classic from the New York Times’ Verbatim series that recreated particularly absurd and bizarre arguments recorded in legal transcripts and depositions. As one commenter put it: “An argument so absurd it could have only happened in real life.” Enjoy!
Have a nice weekend, y’all.