Medium Grind – Opinion
What is This Government Thing, Anyway?
Being American has always meant having an awkward relationship with government. Through one bright eye our government is of, by and for the people. Out the other, slightly jaundiced eye, we is us and the government is them. It’s an unwritten check on government power that is almost uniquely American. We Alaskans have refined and distilled it to a potent form, and it’s impact on the current budget discussion cannot be overestimated.
Every legislator publicly says, “We know more cuts are needed.” The furthest left Democrat has found common ground with the furthest right Republican on that point. Not one legislator I’ve talked to so far this session has been able to identify where the cuts can be made, however, and their own director of the Legislative Finance Division has bluntly said there just isn’t much left to be had without serious consequences. But many legislators are not shy to point out such information is irrelevant.
Sen. Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, framed it in the context of permission. “We’re going to get permissions to from where we are to cuts,” Kelly said. “Once we’ve achieved those we’ll go into, probably, use of the Permanent Fund, and once we’ve achieved that, and you’re going to be losing people at every step of the way, then you can talk about taxes.” Kelly said he sees his role as to help the administration with two things, cuts and timing.
In Kelly’s case those permissions, given by a perceived majority of voters, align with his philosophy, and that can fairly be said about some others. In many cases there’s less conviction behind the notion that cutting will do more good than harm at this point. So, based on what legislator are saying, the government is at least for the people. But the pudding will consist of what legislators actually do, and we all know that’s where the proof lies. Much of that will depend upon two things: what actually is possible; how to legislators regard the relationship between government and the people. I’ve asked several legislators if they thought government was separate from and in competition with the people.
Kelly said it’s a mixed bag. He said government hurts people by overregulation. He said in North Dakota, where people own surface and mineral rights if someone wants to drill for oil on your land you sign and agreement and thirty days later there’s oil coming out of the ground. In Alaska, he said, it takes ten years. Of course, in Alaska we own our almost all of our mineral rights in common, so in North Dakota farmer Smith gets a royalty check, but in Alaska we all get Troopers and no income tax.
Kelly also pointed to Bristol Bay where he said schools are closing because environmentalists have prevented the extraction of even one penny of copper, despite the expenditure of $180 million by the developer. Kelly also said he thinks government is an unfair competitor for manpower and talent.
Kelly sees Alaska’s unique situation though. “If in Alaska you’re not paying taxes, and you’re getting a check and that check goes up and goes down and has nothing to do with spending, in some respects it’s hard to make the case that government overspending has a detrimental effect on the people of Alaska,” he said. “We’re supporting a fat government,” Kelly said, “but we’re not doing it with people’s taxes.” Of course, that may all be about to change and that’s bull Kelly and the rest are trying to dodge.
Anchorage Democratic Senator Berta Gardner said a lot of people like to set the government up as a bad guy. “But the corollary to that is that you get the government you deserve,” she said. “If you don’t like what your government’s doing you have the power to change it ... and please do,” she added with a smile. Gardner said she believes the government is, or at least should be, an extension of the people, but that it’s politically convenient to set up conflicts.
“It’s politically useful for some people to have a boogeyman to flail on,” Gardner said. “Sometimes the boogeymen are members of minority groups, sometimes they’re people who belong to labor unions or the rich or the oil companies. You’ve got to have a boogeyman to make the case why you can be the savior.”
The Process as Evidence
Alaskan voters sent a message to the Legislature in 2006 by approving a ballot initiative to reduce the legislative session from 121 days to 90 days. The measure passed by a margin of about 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent. It’s still unclear what the change was supposed to accomplish, but saving money was one of the main talking points. At the time Sen. Gene Therriault predicted the change would result in more special sessions and no real savings, and that has largely been the case. There have been other unintended consequences as well.
The public process has suffered greatly under the shortened sessions. Public testimony has been diminished in both length and substance. The Legislature hasn’t reduced the number of bills it works on, but it has reduced the amount of time spent on those bills. The public has less time to come to grips with what’s going on in the Capitol, and the budget process has become even less transparent than before. For the big issues it’s become an almost foregone conclusion that they must be dealt with in extended sessions or special sessions. The shortened session may also have negatively affected the bottom line at The Triangle Bar, a favorite legislative watering hole.
There has long been the complaint that minority legislation is ignored for partisan reasons, rather than for anything like merit. The evidence bears that out, but it wasn’t any less true during the reign of the bi-partisan working group. Even Democratic Senator Bill Wielechowski has described that as one of the perks of being in the majority. Even that has been intensified in the shortened sessions though.
The length of session is not the only thing that separates people from a clear view of their government though. It’s long been a popular notion that legislators can get away with more by hiding out in Juneau, far from the watchful eye of an engaged citizenry. But with extensive coverage from Gavel to Gavel, streaming video of committees and other events, including archives and with easy access to legislators via e-mail and telephone that argument doesn’t hold as much water as it once might have. More importantly is that fact that no matter where legislatures meet a lot of the real work gets done outside the committee rooms.
The Republican-led majorities have always caucused in private, out of sight of the cameras and reporter’s digital recorders. Just a few years ago the Democratic minorities used to regularly caucus 30 minutes before floor sessions in one of the conference rooms, with open doors. That’s often not the case anymore as Democrats now regularly meet in a minority leader’s office with no press or outside observers present. In those bygone days when the Democrats did need to hold a “strategy session” they would make the official motion to go into closed caucus.
Other meetings, of course, are happening all the time, and they’d be no more visible in Anchorage than they are in Juneau. For the most part leadership will not bring a bill to the floor unless they’re sure it has the votes to pass. That’s even truer in the Senate than in the House, but neither majority is eager to move a bill all the way through the committee process only to see it die on the floor. When the legislature moved to 90-day sessions former Sen. Tom Wagoner said he favored it since the Legislature saves everything for the last 10 days anyway. Of course that was something of an exaggeration, but it’s true that many of the important pieces are kept in play as the off-camera negotiations play out. Legislators don’t often like to acknowledge what they refer to as horse trading, but the public got a rare glimpse of the process a few years ago.
Longtime Sen. Johnny Ellis (D-Anchorage) was the Rules Committee chair for the bipartisan working group. His own film tax credit bill had stalled in Rep. Bill Stoltze’s House Finance Committee in the waning days of the session. At the same time several critical House bills had begun to pile up in Ellis’ Rules Committee – the last stop for every bill before going to the floor. Ellis uncharacteristically showed up in House Finance to speak for his own bill. Stoltze invited Ellis to the table and said he wouldn’t keep him long because he knew Ellis had a lot of work piled up in Rules. Ellis reassured Stoltze that the logjam in Rules was purely coincidental and that he was confident the film tax credit bill would move, which it did. The exchange drew some chuckles from the gallery, but it was the slimmest of glimpses into legislative mechanics rarely witnessed by the public.
That is not to say that legislators are dishonest, but only that the rough art of making policy is often an ugly business and it doesn’t fit well within the narratives associated with election politics. Kelly said there are two kinds of politics at work in the Capitol – the inside-the-building kind and the election year kind. He said he’d tried to warn Gov. Bill Walker about the inside-the-building politics regarding the governor’s plan to move the constitutional budget reserve account into the Permanent Fund’s earning reserve account this year. The CBR holds about $7 billion and it is the first place the Legislature will go to balance the budget. The trick is the a CBR vote requires a three-fourths vote in each the House and the Senate. In the Senate it’s no problem because there are only five Democrats in the minority, but the House minority holds enough members to block a CBR draw. Kelly said he told the governor, “In this universe it’s not possible; you need to understand that.” Whether or not that’s true remains to be seen. The CBR will run out of cash after next year anyway.
Kelly also spoke about the election year politics. In his view the Democrats seem to be using the budget struggle, and particularly the Permanent Fund debate, to demonize Republican incumbents during the election. He may or may not be right. Wielechowski said the situation is too grave to think in those terms, but all incumbents are facing the same challenge. How do we do what’s right and salvage a functioning government while blaming it on the other guys? Sen. Peter Micciche, a Soldotna Republican, has been one of a handful of legislators to admit the problem can’t be solved without, if not slaughtering, at least wounding several sacred cows.
Micciche may be one of the first to realize it’s already out of the legislators’ hands and in the hands of the public. The Legislature, if not this year then in the next couple of years will be forced to make unpopular decisions. How many legislators survive that will depend upon how successful they are at convincing their constituents those decisions were good enough.