Eye on the Capitol: Week 8 analysis and review
JUNEAU – For students of politics, this was a great week to study. We saw the tug-of-war between basic principles of government play out in a number of arenas. Where do we start?
State statute vs. Alaska Constitution
What do you do when there’s a state statute that says if you serve on a board or commission, you must be registered to vote in Alaska? Is it OK to appoint an out-of-state resident to serve?
Gov. Sean Parnell decided the second option was within his rights when he appointed Dennis Mandell — a former Alaskan now living in California — to serve on the State Assessment Review Board, which hears appeals on taxes for oil and gas properties.
The governor said the Alaska Constitution only requires that he appoint a United States citizen. Parnell defended is action by saying he had sworn an oath to protect the constitution.
Critics like Sen. Hollis French, a Democrat and the minority leader, said the governor had an obligation to “harmonize” the conflict by appointing an Alaskan who also happens to be a U.S. citizen.
French said, going all the way back to territorial days when the state was struggling to take charge of its own destiny, there have been laws requiring in-state residency for boards and commissions.
French was also critical of Mandell’s ties to the oil industry, and said the need for a SARB member to be independent is underscored by a recent Supreme Court ruling on a 2006 case which found that the oil industry low-balled taxes on the trans-Alaska pipeline by almost $10 billion.
The governor said he appointed Mandell to take the board in a new direction; more in keeping with the challenges of less oil flowing through the pipeline.
In the end, the debate fizzled. Mandell withdrew his name from consideration because of the political controversy. Even so, questions linger about balancing the letter of the law with the spirit of the law.
State vs. Feds
The fight against the feds intensified this week. On Monday, the House Resources Committee took testimony on a resolution asking the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to reconsider her decision to block an emergency road between King Cove and Cold Bay.
On Thursday, the governor condemned U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigators for their raids last year on the Fortymile Mining District to check out potential Clean Water Act violations.
Parnell released the findings of a $50,000 state investigation which found no laws were broken, but said the federal response — which included armed investigators — was way over the top and could have set the stage for violence.
By Friday, the fight against the feds was in full throttle. North Pole Rep. Doug Isaacson was preparing a “Sense of the House” resolution to censure Gina McCarthy, the head of the EPA. The resolution is rarely issued, but Isaacson said he felt McCarthy showed extreme disrespect for Alaskans in a recent Wall Street Journal article in which she described gifts she had received during a visit to Alaska — such as a “dinky” North Pole pin and a jar of moose meat that could “gag a maggot,” given to her by a little girl at a hearing.
These were examples McCarthy brought up when talking about the strictness of federal gift reporting. By the end of Friday, McCarthy not only had state lawmakers condemning her behavior, but also two U.S. senators, Republican Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Mark Begich.
Although McCarthy has apologized for her remarks, lawmakers want her to know she revealed attitudes toward the Alaska subsistence lifestyle that won’t be tolerated.
On the same day McCarthy’s comments were raising ire at the Capitol, Sen. Lyman Hoffman of Bethel had his annual potluck for staffers in his office. There was a range of wild foods to sample, from melt-in-your mouth Kuskokwim River salmon to caribou stew to crunchy herring eggs sprinkled on a salad. Only in Alaska.
People vs. Government
Poor Alaskans. Sometimes, they must fight both the feds and their own state.
House Bill 77 has been described by opponents as the “Silence Alaska” and “Muzzle Alaska” acts. The state permitting bill has also been dubbed the “Medusa Bill.”
And on Wednesday the public fought back against what it perceives as the many-headed hydra of government.
When Sen. Cathy Giessel, the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, limited public testimony on the bill to one and a half hours — and to two minutes a person — people complained about the process as much as the bill.
About 38 minutes into the hearing, Phil Gordon of Homer summed up the frustrations. He was testifying telephonically from the Homer Legislative Information Office.
“You should know, there’s an entire room full of citizens here in Homer, who are not going to be able to testify,” he told the committee.
He called the bill “anti-citizen” and “anti-democracy.”
Gordon said if natural resources were so important to the framers of the Alaska Constitution that they gave citizens of the state ownership of them, why then was public opinion being avoided instead of emphasized?
After Giessel closed the hearing to testimony on Wednesday, her colleagues successfully prevailed upon her to reconsider.
The hearing was reopened on Friday and went for four and a half hours. About 120 people testified, again with the same two-minute restriction. About two-thirds were against HB 77.
From opponents of the bill, even, there was grudging admiration for Giessel’s unstinting fairness at holding people strictly to two minutes of testimony.
One woman from Bristol Bay acknowledged Giessel’s impartiality, but said it hurt to see elders cut off.
90 Days vs. 120 Days
What we saw last week with HB 77 was a clear example of problems created when the 120-day session was cut back to 90 days.
The timeline is so tight that it doesn’t allow adequate time for discussion of issues of huge importance to Alaskans.
For Sen. Pete Micciche, there was a lot of frustration. He had held several public hearings in his Kenai Peninsula district on his own, and had worked hard on a rewrite of HB 77.
Much of the bill, he said, codifies existing practices. He also said it was clear that people testifying did not understand how the revisions addressed their concerns. But then again, the latest version of HB 77 only came out two days before the hearing.
In the two-minute time frame, imposed to allow as many people as possible to testify, there was no time for questions from committee members — so the public did not get a sense that their comments were being truly weighed in the debate. More came away convinced that the bill is a done deal.
“Can you not hear the overwhelming number of Alaskans against HB 77?” Daniel Lum of Barrow asked the committee. “Can you not hear?”
Lawmakers who support HB 77 say they tend to discount the voices against it because environmental groups are highly effective at organizing opposition.
It’s unfortunate there wasn’t a longer time frame to fully air both sides of this debate. The HB 77 hearings could be remembered as a defining moment for the 2014 legislature — especially if the public’s anger feeds into the SB 21 oil tax reform referendum, another movement that began because opponents of SB 21 felt that the measure was fast-tracked through the Legislature without time for adequate public input.Testimony from HB 77 came from across the state — from Nuiqsut to Nome, from Barrow to Bethel and from Kenai to Cordova to Ketchikan. Almost every part of the state is touched by a bill that has many moving pieces.
Some longtime observers of public process say the people might have been better served with one or two days of hearings held at a venue in Anchorage, complete with educational presentations from the Department of Natural Resources.
Proponents of the bill say the measure can also be used to protect the environment as well as streamline the permitting process for development. Perhaps in such a forum, the public would have an opportunity to hear more about some of the benefits.
It’ll be interesting to see how this bill plays out when it moves to the Senate Rules Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Lesil McGuire, who is running for Lt. Governor in the August primary against Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan. McGuire is known for her sharp mind and independence. How will she navigate the politics of a bill that has fishermen across the state seeing red?
Church vs. State
Senate Joint Resolution 9 is another measure that highlights competing value systems. SJR 9 calls for a constitutional amendment to allow state spending on public schools.
On Wednesday, it looked like the controversial school choice/voucher amendment was headed for a vote in the Senate. But with the necessary support in doubt, Senate majority leaders shelved a vote on SJR 9 and the debate leading up to it, which probably would have taken up a lot of time but not changed the outcome.
Final notes on Week 8
Students of politics should also note that during the eighth week of the legislative session we had a chance to observe one of the most important skills in politics, the art of compromise.
SB 64, a sweeping crime and prison reform bill, passed the Senate. It is the work of two lawmakers — John Coghill, a Republican and Johnny Ellis, a Democrat.
The measure acknowledges the elephant in the room — that alcohol and drugs are the major drivers of crime in the Alaska — and that it might be more cost effective and to the betterment of those convicted to focus on treatment rather than incarceration.
We also saw SB 138, the governor’s natural gas legislation, move out of the Senate Finance Committee to the Senate floor.
What were the compromises? Sen. Click Bishop was able to get stronger pro-labor language added to the bill, and Sen. Lyman Hoffman inserted a provision that would raise money for Rural energy projects.
A vote in the Senate is expected early this week. As a result of these amendments, SB 138 probably picked up a few more votes of support.
One final note: The House passed a $9.1 billion operating budget, a $1 billion decrease from last year. But it’s still a work in progress. Education funding has not yet been factored in, and the Senate can always add back in what the House took out.
As the session races to a close and the bills fly by in a blur, how much more compromise will we see?
Compromise isn’t really necessary when one party dominates all three branches of government. And in an election year, it doesn’t help fire up the base as much as conflict does.