Lawmakers unpack, think ahead
JUNEAU – Clouds and mist hovered near the state capitol Monday, making it hard to see. The same could be said about the upcoming the session. Most lawmakers concede they have a hard time picturing how the next 90 days will unfold.
Nome Sen. Donny Olson unpacked and organized his office with a sense of concern.
“With declining revenues, it’s very easy to start fighting,” Olson said, who is a Democrat but also a member of the Republican majority and a member of the finance committee. “If we start fighting, a house divided cannot stand. And if that happens here, we’re in a lot of trouble.”
Among the items Olson pulled out of a box was a pair of skin boots.
“They are from my great grandfather. He came over from Lapland,” Olson said, who said he keeps them around during session, to remind him of who he is and where he comes from.
He said he looks to the boots for inspiration when things get contentious in Juneau. It reminds him of the hardships his grandfather faced, especially when things get contentious in Juneau. His grandfather was a reindeer herder, who walked for miles across frozen tundra in those boots.
Olson also unfolded two Alaska flags with 49 stars.
“I like to unveil them and put them up. It was a big thing when Alaska became a state,” Olson said. To him, the flags are a reminder of what’s possible when the state rallies together.
“Let’s try to work together, so we can do for the good of everybody in the state of Alaska,” Olson said.
Unity will be hard to achieve this session. It’s an election year, with a $2 billion revenue shortfall and calls for downsizing the budget, with war clouds looming over education funding.
There are also big-ticket projects various groups of lawmakers want to fund – the Knik Arm Bridge, the Susitna-Watana Dam, and a billion for upgrades to the Railbelt electric grid.
And just in the last two weeks, the governor announced he wants the state to spend billions for an equity stake in a natural gas line.
“Over the last six years, we’ve put money into savings,” Olson said, who worries about how fast the state’s budget reserves could drain.
Olson’s office is on the fifth floor of the capitol building, where members of the senate finance committee have large, comfortable accommodations.
It’s where Sen. Bert Stedman, (R) Sitka, used to work as co-chairman of the senate finance committee during the bi-partisan coalition days, which ended last year when Republicans were able to gain control of both houses and the governor’s office.
Stedman is now on the first floor. A table in his office was cluttered with a toaster and other gear for his boat, which he’s used as housing during session for the last ten years.
While Stedman may have lost some status among his Republican colleagues, he makes up for it with humor. He joked about the plastic tubs in the corner.
“We’ve got the good Gucci luggage that we use that’s really for Alaska, effective in the rain,” Stedman said, who also picked up clamps attached to a battery charger and said not to worry, he wouldn’t try hooking it up to any colleagues or Democrats.
Among Stedman’s other prized possessions is a sausage grinder, stuffed with legislative bills.
“These are bills that didn’t make it through or got substantially changed,” Stedman said. “Because when you put in a bill with one particular intent, it’ll come out totally different.”
But there’s one thing that’s no joking matter to Stedman, a concern that this year’s crowded agenda will cut short the public process.
“You need to have public support on these big, big policy calls that are multi-generation,” Stedman said. “You just can’t unilaterally do it in Juneau.”
Stedman was alluding to the current voter initiative to overturn Senate Bill 21 and its oil tax reforms.
While he’s excited about the governor’s plans to invest in building a gas line, he’s also concerned that there won’t be enough time to truly vet the proposal.
“We need to slow the process down. Do more detailed work. Get the public behind us,” Stedman said, who argues that an investment of time and buy-in from Alaskans will pay dividends in the future.
Stedman also keeps a historical replica of a painting of Custer’s Last Stand, adorned with his own sticky notes.
There’s a soldier with a horn is labeled a Democrat.
“That’s because Democrats always toot their own horn,” said Stedman. “You’ve got to put a lot of humor in it, even though sometimes it’s not too funny,” said Stedman.
Over Custer, there’s a label that says “progressivity,” which refers to oil tax reform, which reduced taxes when oil prices get high.
“Obviously Custer didn’t do to well, and neither did progressivity in the end,” joked Stedman. But he promised his labels would change over the next 90 days.
“I suggest you check back and see how things are going,” he said.