Discover more from The Alaska Memo by Matt Buxton
What a year, what a week, what a day
We’ve gotten here together, with some pulling the weight, some struggling to hold on and some complaining about the comfort of their free ride.
Happy Friday, Alaska! It’s Day 53 of the Legislative session and I’m not entirely sure what happened this week. The vaccine went wide, Lora Reinbold got kind of but not really excluded from the Senate and the bad plan to divide DHSS got canned.
(On a quick programming note, the weekly column is going to be one of those Saturday in the Sun situations. I wanted to get to some of the Anchorage election stuff but I’ve yet to crack into some of the fundraising numbers.)
It’s been a year
It’s been a year since everything changed course with the pandemic. Following a weekend packed for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod, on March 11, 2020 we watched as President Trump imposed a travel ban from Europe, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they had tested positive for the virus, the NBA season came to a screeching halt and Sarah Palin was unveiled as The Bear on “The Masked Singer.” So very much has changed since then—some of it permanently—and now this week, Alaska announced it has made the vaccine widely available to everyone who wants it. We’ve gotten here together, with some pulling the weight, some struggling to hold on and some complaining about the comfort of their free ride.
Thank you to everyone except that last group.
Pumping the breaks
Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced Thursday that he had withdrawn—for now—his executive order to divide the Department of Health and Social Services due to “technical issues.” It’s particularly notable given that “technical difficulties” and “substantial litigation risk” have never seemed to slow the Dunleavy administration’s plans before, as evidenced by, well, just about everything from the rushed privatization of the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, anti-union actions and that whole thing with Jeff Landfield. What’s far more likely to be at play here is that the House Health and Social Services Committee, co-chaired by Reps. Tiffany Zulkosky and Liz Snyder, did its job.
Legislators on that committee started before the session and has been rolling since organization, vetting the proposal, hearing from affected groups and digging into the legal issues. All work that the administration seemed disinterested or unable to do. There’s wide agreement that the state’s largest department has its troubles but when asked to prove that this is the best way forward, the administration’s claims about broad engagement, about massive savings, about improved outcomes came crumbling down. The plan, which has an actual annual price tag of about $5 million, was increasingly difficult to defend at a time when the lack of direction for the state’s financial woes is becoming crystal clear and when it so obviously would open the state to another bruising and costly round of lawsuits. These are all questions that a Dunleavy-aligned House likely wouldn’t have had the political will to open, taking DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum’s surface-level pitch as the first and only word they needed to hear about it.
It’s also hard to overlook the fact that most of the votes taken during Tuesday’s Health and Social Services Committee cut across caucus lines, a rare sight in the hyper-partisan Legislature, with both Republican Reps. Chris Kurka and Ken McCarty acknowledging that their colleagues had raised enough issue that at the very least they would like to keep alive the option to halt the plan before the March 21 deadline. It’s a welcome sight to see minds changed at the committee table.
In fact, the House has continued its strong, rightly adversarial oversight role with the administration alive from the interim, which saw the Dunleavy administration refuse to participate in several hearings. The House raised questions about the bungled handling of the small business relief program, raised red flags about the state’s covid-19 safety policies for office buildings, the Alaska Pioneer Homes and prisons, issues that would eventually make headlines. It’s no wonder that some party-line Republicans have tried their best to attack and undermine House Democrats who’ve been integral behind to this critical oversight effort—at the very least trying labeling them as the Eastman of the left.
Hours after pulling the plug on the executive order, the administration was in front of the Senate Finance Committee trying to save some face, admitting that the path forward on the division isn’t entirely clear. The Dunleavy administration could rework the plan and resubmit it as another executive order or it could take a crack at legislation that would involve the Legislature more closely with the measure. Either way, Sen. Click Bishop told ‘em to take as much time as possible, including the summer and interim if they saw fit.
Guys, I’m exhausted from writing about the covid-denying extreme-right Eagle River Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold. Despite the Senate’s unprecedented vote to exclude the mask-less, test-avoiding and temperature check line-skipping Republican from the Senate after House Speaker Louise Stutes had to do their job and discipline her, she still seems to be causing plenty of in-person trouble.
While the Senate Republicans have taken the “We also kinda think covid-19 is a joke” approach with Reinbold, it’s no longer a laughing matter now that Senate President Peter Micciche’s senior aide Konrad Jackson has been in the hospital after becoming seriously ill with covid-19 following the outbreak two weeks ago.
“When we had the spike of the cases in the building, it started to worry me,” said Micciche, who has been frequently photographed attending fundraisers without a mask, told reporters. “But … when it hits someone who I’m that close to, and I hear that person who is always upbeat, always positive, always, you know, raring to go, and you hear him struggling and you realize that we’re playing with people’s lives by not taking this seriously.”
While most people are worried and sending positive thoughts Jackson’s way, Reinbold has kept up her antics that have not only continued to signal that she’s not serious about anyone’s safety but have also delayed and ensnared legislative business. Her attempt to sit in on the Senate State Affairs Committee led to a 30-minute delay, which also deprived the committee of the in-person votes needed to advance several bills. Here’s that delay condensed:
Today’s Senate Judiciary Committee was largely the same, with Reinbold arriving in person before being told to go back to her temporary office (apparently the locks on her office door have been changed). From the video stream, she told the committee that the Legislature’s covid-19 policies are “still not very clear to me."
Landfield was there in-person, capturing this thread that was capped off with this exchange between Reinbold and one-time Reinbold ally Sen. Shelley Hughes:
Stories written by photojournalists are always a treat and few do it better than the Anchorage Daily News’ Marc Lester. Ahead of this year’s Iditarod kickoff, he sat down with Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore to talk about Zirkle taking one last shot at the victory that had eluded her career. It wasn’t meant to be and Zirkle was withdrawn from the race after suffering a scary injury, which means you should keep a tissue box nearby when reading this touching profile. From the ADN: Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore reflect on their mushing careers and discuss why they’re retiring after the 2021 Iditarod
There have been a lot of great retrospectives on this last year but I’ve particularly enjoyed this one by NPR. The only shortcoming of the account of The Day Everything Changed is the omission of Sarah Palin as The Bear. From NPR: March 11, 2020: The Day Everything Changed
How do we deal with the increasingly fractured life created by disinformation run amok? Well, we don’t really have any great answers but here’s a story that takes a good look at what it’s done to families. From Washington Post (highlighted by ADN’S James Brooks): They’re worried their mom is becoming a conspiracy theorist. She thinks they’re the ones living in a fantasy world.
I was going to put a video here about the mathematics behind masking but, instead, I wanted to highlight this video from MythBusters’ Adam Savage. Savage has gone on to do his own channel where he pokes around with new projects, checks out cool people making things and reflects on the show and life in general. There’s tons of good stuff out there, but what I’ve found particularly engaging is whenever he talks about the creative process… like how making a lead balloon changed the show.
Have a nice weekend, y’all.