Alaska political mess has legislators divided over meeting place

Alaska political mess has legislators divided over meeting place

A deep divide over budget cuts in Alaska has become so acrimonious that two feuding factions of legislators cannot even agree on where they are supposed to meet, the latest twist in what may be the nation’s oddest political climate.

About two-thirds of lawmakers in Alaska’s state House and Senate met for a second day Tuesday in Juneau, the state capital. The rest held meetings in Wasilla, more than 500 miles away. The legislature is so torn that the state Senate majority leader, who joined the rump faction in Wasilla, was stripped of her official position.

Alaska political observers say the two groups are a reflection of a divide within the Republican Party, between hardliners who want the government out of the way and more Chamber of Commerce-type Republicans who see value in state spending on some services.

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“We just have weird politics up here,” said Jim Lottsfeldt, a longtime Alaska lobbyist who has worked for both Democratic and Republican politicians such as Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiKey Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock Impeachment hearings don't move needle with Senate GOP Hillicon Valley: Federal inquiry opened into Google health data deal | Facebook reports millions of post takedowns | Microsoft shakes up privacy debate | Disney plus tops 10M sign-ups in first day MORE (R), former Gov. Sarah Palin (R) and former Sen. Mark BegichMark Peter BegichAlaska political mess has legislators divided over meeting place Former GOP chairman Royce joins lobbying shop Lobbying world MORE (D).

At stake are more than $400 million in budget cuts ordered by Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R), just eight months into his first term. The cuts include a 40 percent reduction in funding to the University of Alaska system, a $50 million cut to state Medicaid spending and tens of millions more in reductions for senior benefits and public assistance to the blind and disabled.

Dunleavy even cut $3.4 million for inspectors who monitor cruise ship pollution — money that was funded through fees from passengers and the cruise lines, not state tax dollars.

The cuts to the state’s public university system were an unexpected blow, according to observers. The University of Alaska has three main schools -- based in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau -- that each have several subsidiary campuses in smaller cities. Such severe cuts will almost certainly require the schools to cut staff, and may require them to close campuses.

The governor called the legislature back into special session this month to consider his proposal to give Alaskans $3,000 each as part of the state’s annual Permanent Fund dividend, a check every state resident receives from severance taxes paid by the oil and gas industry.

The debate over the size of the annual Permanent Fund dividend has roiled Alaska politics all year. The new governor says his predecessor, Gov. Bill Walker (I), shortchanged Alaskans with amounts that were smaller than they deserved. Most legislators, aside from the hardline conservatives who want the larger distribution, favor a $1,600 dividend this year.

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“They are all wrapped around, ‘We need a permanent fund,’” Lottsfeldt said of the Wasilla faction. “If that means you’re going to destroy the university or get rid of Medicaid, that’s OK, it’s our money.”

Making the situation more unusual, Dunleavy’s call for a special session ordered the legislature to meet in Wasilla, in the heart of Alaska’s most conservative region, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.

Legislators who oppose Dunleavy’s cuts and who want a smaller Permanent Fund dividend acknowledge the governor has the authority to call them back into special session, but they say he does not have the right to dictate where they meet.

“This is all part of why Alaskans have lost trust in their lawmakers,” Dunleavy said in a statement last month, as legislative leaders tried to move the session back to Juneau. “How can we with a straight face expect people to follow the law when the legislative leadership ignores, breaks, and skirts the law at every turn?”

The Republican divide has already caused havoc in Juneau. Earlier this year, the two factions of Republicans in the state House could not agree on a consensus candidate to be Speaker, delaying the start of legislative business by a month.

The stalemate ended when some of the more centrist Republicans eventually backed state Rep. Bryce Edgmon, a Democrat-turned-independent, for the position, even though Republicans hold a majority of the seats in the state House.

Now Edgmon and state Senate President Cathy Giessel (R) are leading the faction of legislators who want to overturn Dunleavy’s steep budget cuts, the 37 members camped out in Juneau. The arch-conservatives who favor maintaining the cuts, 21 in all, met at Wasilla Middle School.

One of those conservatives in Wasilla was state Sen. Mia Costello, an Anchorage Republican and the state Senate majority leader. In retaliation, Senate Republicans meeting in Juneau stripped Costello of her title and removed her from the Senate Rules Committee.

By state law, all 60 of Alaska’s state legislators meet together during special sessions. They need a total of 31 members to reach a quorum, but 45 votes to overturn a governor’s veto. By Tuesday, the coalition opposing the cuts was eight votes short of reaching the override threshold.

Time is not on the Juneau faction’s side. They must vote to override any of Dunleavy’s vetoes by the end of the day Friday.

Both factions say they have public opinion on their side. The conservatives meeting in Wasilla had a boisterous crowd of supporters cheering them on, but legislators in Juneau pointed to loud protesters outside the Capitol who want the cuts restored, a crowd the Anchorage Daily News estimated at more than 700.

At the same time, Alaska is in the midst of an unprecedented heat wave. The temperature in Anchorage hit 90 degrees last week for the first time in history. A wildfire nearby has sent smoke wafting over the city, and the state canceled fireworks displays over the July 4th holiday because of the threat of more conflagrations around the state.

“We’re having fires, we’re having record heat, the salmon are running. This is the time of year when no one cares about politics, and legislators are getting thousands and thousands of letters and emails saying stop all this,” Lottsfeldt said.

Much is at stake for Dunleavy, a former member of the conservative faction in the state legislature. He easily beat a more centrist Republican in the 2018 primary election, then beat Begich and Walker in the general election with 51 percent of the vote.

In Juneau, he struck a combative stand in an effort to wholly reshape government through both cuts and a higher dividend, a key campaign promise.

But there are signs that his popularity has taken a hit. A poll conducted by the Portland-based Democratic polling firm Patinkin Research Strategies, Dunleavy’s approval rating stood at 41 percent, while 57 percent disapproved of the job he was doing. After Dunleavy’s budget cuts, his approval rating fell to just 31 percent.

If Dunleavy’s vetoes stand, it “creates real political danger for him going forward,” said one veteran Alaska political operative, who asked not to be named. “The state may like the rhetoric of budget cuts, but the biggest employer in the state is the federal government and the second-biggest employer is the state government.”