Discover more from The Alaska Memo by Matt Buxton
What are we even doing anymore?
We’re nearly two months into the legislative session. The oil revenue rollercoaster is taking us on another ride while the House minority bogs things down with unhinged amendments.
Happy Saturday, Alaska!
In this edition: We’re nearly two months into the legislative session and who really knows what we’re going to do with all the money we think we’ll be getting from the latest upturn on the oil revenue rollercoaster; The increasingly torturous House amendment-o-ramas have me wondering: What are we even doing anymore; Lawmakers take aim at the gasoline tax; Divesting from Russia is easier said than done; The week’s Twitter threads; The reading list; and some low-key weekend watching.
Uncertainty on the oil revenue rollercoaster
We’re nearly two months into the legislative session and it’s been increasingly difficult to really find something grand, overarching thing to say about the session. It’s been a largely discombobulated year as everyone jockeys for position in a world where events well outside our control are driving the show. The rollercoaster ride that is oil revenue stands to fill the state’s coffers once again with easy-to-spend money right in time for an election year. But aside from staking out the ground for a $1,300 energy rebate to be paid along with the dividend, it’s unclear just how much any of this will play into the political calculus of the legislative session.
The truth of the matter is that we really don’t know what’s going to happen next and, frankly, we have very, very little say in how any of it will play out. Oil prices could continue to rise and stay high, creating a wonderland where all our problems are solved (for this year, at least), or they could fall to anywhere between the somewhat-comfortable region to ruin. After all, oil prices dipped by about $15 per barrel in one day this week, falling from $125 to $110 and it’s currently at $108. In all, it creates a wildly uncertain situation where you really can’t make any majorly significant moves with any certainty that the money will be there to fund it. They’re pretty sure that the money will provide the funds to pay out the $1,300 energy relief program, fund some programs around the edges and put a decent chunk of money into savings, but beyond that? It’s a gamble.
What’s becoming clear, though, is that with all the uncertainty there’s suddenly less appetite for the tough decisions that everyone was considering just last fall. All the talk of the all-in approach of a little bit more cuts, a little bit more taxes and a little less dividend in order to balance the books have all largely evaporated as the none are needed in the immediate future. Of course, we’ve been on this rollercoaster before. Just as it can take us into the stratosphere of big ol’ capital budgets, it can also plunge us right back into the depths of financial woes (though, we do, at least, have about $81 billion in the Alaska Permanent Fund to dry our tears on). The underlying problems that we’ve faced, that have led to a decimation of the Alaska state government and an exodus of Alaskans, aren’t going away because oil prices are higher.
The moment they turn, we’ll be right back where we were just a few months ago.
If the Legislature isn’t willing to take on the difficult decisions that would go a long way to fixing things for the long term—diversified broad-based revenue source and literally any kind of resolution to the dividend debate—then they should at the very least be putting away significant money to save for the next downturn. The $13 billion withdrawn from the Constitutional Budget Reserve helped keep the state afloat during the time it took to convince legislators to tap the Alaska Permanent Fund to pay for government. Refilling that account while making smart and sensible investments in Alaska (a tall task given the cast of characters at the dials) ought to be a high priority.
After all, if they don’t put money away now, they’ll be forced to make some tough decisions sooner than later.
What are we even doing?
The last few weeks in the Alaska Legislature have been a weird sort of thing. We’ve got bills moving. There’s some neat stuff that gets a policy wonk like me excited, which means they’ll probably die somewhere in a staunchly Republican senator’s committee; there’s some good stuff that will barely scrape by; some really bad bills that will thankfully die somewhere in a progressive Democratic representative’s committee; and plenty of middling bills that legislators will waste an inordinate amount of time on battling over the minutia.
I feel like that last point has been encapsulated no better than the two bills that have been the focus of the House for the last week and a half. I’m talking about the Turo bill and the wedding tourism bill. They’re both fine pieces of legislation that contain fine policy goals but, if we’re being honest, we would probably be fine without. The kind of bills where outside observers get to holler “They’re wasting their time on THIS!” The Turo bill, HB 60, would fold in carsharing apps into the state’s rental car structure, including the tax part (which, surprise, Turo and Republicans aren’t thrilled about). And the wedding bill, HB 62, reduces the number of required witnesses to solemnize a wedding from two to one, meaning all the ritzy destination weddings can buy one less seat in their helicopter ride. See what I’m talking about? They’re fine.
But still, they have produced what have been some of the most aggravating House floor amendment sessions that I’ve seen in a while. The Turo bill racked up an impressive 22 amendments with EIGHT amendments to the amendments. The marriage bill had nine amendments with SIX amendments to the amendments. Most were offered by members of the House Minority, and when I say the House Minority, I mean almost exclusively Rep. David Eastman, who seems to have no limit in dreaming up all kinds of changes to legislation that range from the nearly sensible (until you think about it) to the realm of “Should we call someone?” And his Republican colleagues have nearly without fail dutifully lined up in support of whatever bonkers idea Eastman has ordered up from the legislative drafters. At least it’s made for some amusing side-eye from Reps. Adam Wool and Andy Josephson.
While, yes, Eastman and every other legislator have the right to offer loads of amendments and bog down the process in the name of having their constituents’ voices heard in state government, there’s a point where it goes from representation to just outright working against the process. It’s frustrating and unproductive. And, increasingly, that seems like the point.
When Republicans holler that the only thing that stands between prosperity in Alaska and destitution is the ability of individuals to put three personal vehicles up for rent on a carsharing app, it’d be outlandish to take them seriously. These are folks who claim that the path to the American Dream is now through the gig economy but fall over themselves to stymie real efforts to ensure Alaskans have safe and dignified jobs that pay a living wage. While they’re worried about the plight of a family with three vehicles to spare, where’s their attention and care for child care or affordable housing?
And we haven’t even begun to talk about the appalling defense of child marriage during the wedding bill debate this week or, for that matter, what their colleagues over in the Senate are up to with attacking trans youth.
It should serve as a reminder these folks are just a race or two away from holding the majority—a complete unknown when we have a completely upended our elections with a new voting system, new district maps and new unlimited campaign contributions.
That’s how much the average Alaskan would save under the widely supported move to suspend the state’s gasoline tax, according to a report by the ADN. The idea picked up steam on Friday with the Senate passing a Sense of the Senate supporting a suspension and Gov. Dunleavy calling for an amendment to in-progress legislation that would suspend the tax through June 2023. That underlying legislation would be Rep. Andy Josephson’s proposal to increase the underlying fuel tax to 16 cents. It’s currently at 8 cents per gallon, which is the lowest in the country.
Funnily enough, this is the second time now, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Les Gara has staked out a position on how the state should be responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine only to see Gov. Mike Dunleavy follow suit a few days later. First it was with his call for the state to divest from its Russian assets and this week it was suspending the state’s gasoline tax. On Wednesday, Gara started calling for the suspension of the tax.
“We have a duty to support Ukraine with a ban on Russian oil,” he said. “But the Governor can lead by pushing to suspend Alaska’s gasoline tax until oil prices fall to back to Earth.”
Now, Gara’s calling on the governor to end the state’s per barrel oil tax credits. I have some doubts that his powers of manifestation go quite that far.
Easier said than done
Following up on Thursday’s post about the push to divest from Russia, it’s important to point out that divesting from Russia isn’t actually possible at this time thanks to a slew of sanctions on Russia as well as the Russia central bank limiting the sale of assets by nonresidents.
Follow the threads
The House Coalition cleans up the edges around the Turo bill after the Republican minority won a handful of amendments (as of writing, they’ve still yet to actually get to the underlying bill).
The House Community and Regional Affairs Committee heard a bill that would create a database to track the use of force by police. Of course, it raised concerns from Republican Rep. Ken McCarty, who was worried that it’d be treating police who use force “like pedophiles.”
The House Finance Committee heard legislation that would allow sectorial bargaining for the child care industry, allowing the workers and business owners to form a union to negotiate with the state how federal child care grants should be spent in order to not only increase the access and affordability of child care, but also make it not quite such a miserable field to work in.
The House Finance Committee heard legislation that would restore defined benefit retirement system to Alaska’s state employees. The lack of clear retirement benefits—along with the fact that the state employees cannot participate in social security—has been blamed for an ongoing exodus of younger teachers, troopers and other employees to other states where they can build toward the future. The legislation, like other recent efforts, bends over backwards to be cost neutral.
The Senate unanimously passed Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson’s Senate Bill 7, which requires the state to post its police conduct policies online. It’s part of her Turning Pain into Progress slate of police reform legislation, which includes the above-mentioned bill about the police database.
The House still hasn’t gotten to the Turo bill, but it did take up amendments on Rep. Matt Claman’s House Bill 62, which has the main goal of reducing the required number of witnesses for a marriage from two to one to help with destination weddings in Alaska—which includes the roughly 1,000 helicopter weddings that occur in Alaska each year. Most were the kind of inane amendments sponsored by Rep. David Eastman (who seems to just have some very weird ideas about what marriage is), but it did include the amendment to repeal the law that allows 14- and 15-year-olds to get married (which Eastman opposed). Like the Turo bill, though, the underlying bill is still awaiting a final vote.
‘Time is of the essence,’ University of Alaska officials told the House Finance Committee this week while they were considering legislation to protect the Higher Education Investment Fund from future sweeps.
Department of Revenue Commissioner Lucinda Mahoney explains to legislators why holding onto Russian assets and, potentially, buying more Russian assets is a good idea… as long as you’re focused on the bottom line.
The struggle to develop the state’s next big North Slope oil project in Pikka is a pretty good reminder that oil development is not quite as easy as turning on the tap and letting the oil flow. From the ADN: Alaska’s next big North Slope oil project is mired in a feud with ConocoPhillips, and reportedly for sale
Researchers working to understand the life of Benny Benson have discovered that he was 14 at the time he designed Alaska’s best-in-the-nation flag, not 13. From the ADN: A century later, officials correct the age of Benny Benson, the boy who designed Alaska’s flag
For a humorous—and pretty blue—take on the West’s infatuation with Russian money, take a look at the latest video by Jonathan Pie (a fictional newscaster created by British comedian Tom Walker). From the New York Times: Welcome to Londongrad, Where Kleptocrats Wash Their Money Clean
Alaska is saying goodbye to one of its best reporters today with the departure of KTOO’s Rashah McChesney. From KTOO: KTOO says goodbye to Rashah McChesney
The Iditarod is humming along with Eureka musher Brent Sass still holding the lead, producing what is just a very good headline. From the Associated Press: Iditarod leader declines gourmet meal to keep mushing
If you’re looking for a fancy king crab dinner, better buy it now because the federal Russian seafood ban means the nation’s main source of king crab is now cut off. From the ADN: A Russian seafood ban will drive up prices, but it’s too soon to say if Alaska fishermen will benefit
Weekend watching — Subtitles on
The pace of news feels even more like drinking from a firehose than usual, so for this week’s weekend watching I wanted to share the latest video from Primitive Technology. He’s been making these low-key, minimalist videos hanging out on his property in Far North Queensland and making stuff like structures to smelting iron and making a water-powered hammer. There’s no commentary, but you’ll find the descriptions of what’s going on in the subtitles if you wish. Sit back and enjoy.
Have a nice weekend, y’all.