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Moore: Alaska Democrats offer olive branch; majority torches it

  • Author: Shannyn Moore
  • Updated: June 26, 2016
  • Published February 13, 2016

This has got to be the worst time in Alaska history to be in the legislative majority. There's no money for ill-conceived, poorly vetted projects in legislators' districts. The state's budget crisis is so severe the usual tricks of substituting anti-abortionism or pro-gunism for actual governing won't suffice to fool the rubes back home. The majorities in each house will determine whether we will have a meaningful state fiscal plan.

Proposals to squeeze a few bucks out of the mining, fishing and oil industries are getting the stink-eye from lobbyists, who have descended on Juneau like a biblical plague. Talk of changing the Permanent Fund to divert earnings to pay for some government expenses has led to threats of tarring and feathering any legislator who would consider the idea.

To make matters worse, it's an election year and Republicans -- who own the overwhelming majorities in both bodies -- are worried that Democrats will attack them if they do any of the above, or if they do nothing.

Enter the Democrats. On Monday morning, House and Senate Democrats did something quite remarkable. They offered to help out the Republicans. They suggested the Legislature form a "caucus of the whole" -- one in which they would all share the burden of making unpopular decisions. That way, neither party could beat the other over the head with whatever is decided.

Working together -- what a novel idea in today's poisoned political environment. Novel, but not unprecedented in Alaska. From 2007 to 2012, the Alaska Senate was guided by a bipartisan coalition. The partisan political hacks hated it but the coalition changed our oil tax structure and saved Alaskans $18 billion. We still have billions in the bank from their "savings spree." Had they not saved that money, we'd have been flat broke a while ago.

Sadly, instead of welcoming the opportunity to commit statecraft in a crisis, the majority offered an all-too-familiar counterproposal: more partisanship. Yeah, that's what the people are demanding: More partisanship!

Senate Republicans did agree to welcome to their caucus a single Democrat, Sen. Donny Olson of Nome. Under the Legislature's byzantine rules, Olson's switch will cost the remaining Democrats their lone seat on the Senate's powerful finance committee.

While Senate Republicans were quick to point out that Democrats could still try to amend the budget during floor "debate," they weren't quite as quick to point out that any such effort would be pointless, because the Republican caucus requires its members to vote against any and all Democratic amendments to their budget.

On the floor last year, for example, Senate Democrats proposed amendments to cut more than $700 million additional dollars from the Republican budget. The Republicans rejected every single one of them. This year, thanks to Olson, Senate Democrats will have no more say in the state budget than the guy standing in line next to you at Fred Meyer. If one of those Democratic senators happens to represent you, you're out of luck.

Olson's defection will have the odd effect of actually increasing legislative expenses, as he will get to add staff and boost the pay for his existing staff. To be sure, Olson is no budget hawk. State travel records show he's one of the biggest spenders in the Legislature -- racking up more than $46,000 in personal relocation expenses in just the past year. He should fit right in with the Friends of the Taj MaHawker.

In the House, the Republican majority decided to cancel all hearings except those dealing with the state budget crisis. This wasn't as clever an idea as it sounds; it means we're paying the 72 percent of House members who aren't on the Finance Committee to sit around without much to do.

House Republicans also changed the rule that gives the public meaningful notice before legislative hearings. The required notice has been dropped to just a few hours. That means only Alaskans who can afford to park a gold-plated lobbyist in a Capitol hallway will be positioned to try to influence the shaping of legislation certain to hit your pocketbook.

So the Democrats offered an olive branch to the Republicans, and the Republicans set it on fire. I guess that makes sense. The Republicans don't seem to want any interference as they decimate state spending on frivolities like education, protect unconscionable tax cuts for corporations, cap your Permanent Fund dividend and do absolutely nothing about raising revenue.

That's where we're all headed, folks. Just you wait and see.

Shannyn Moore is a radio broadcaster.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any Web browser.

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