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Why pledging loyalty to party caucuses on budget is bad for lawmakers

  • Author: Rep. David Eastman
    | Opinion
  • Updated: March 27, 2018
  • Published March 27, 2018

If you want to know why Alaska's Legislature is dysfunctional today, simply take a look at the first decision a legislator often makes before heading down to Juneau. It is not whether you will fly or drive to the capital. And it is not a question of where you will live when you get there. It's not even about whether your family will come with you. It's a question of membership: "Are you in, or are you out?"

If you pledge undying loyalty to the Legislature's fraternity, you are in. If you insist on making your own decisions on how you will vote, you are out.

Being in the fraternity means access to tangible power; you are assigned more employees to work under you and to help you do your work as a legislator, you are given a larger office, you are often put in charge of a committee, you receive VIP access to the state travel fund, and you are invited to be "at the table" at those closed-door meetings that never take place (at least officially).

It's the fast track to an easier life as a legislator. In most other states, legislators divide into teams by party. Not so here in Alaska. (Note: In those other states it may well be illegal for a legislator to try to sell their vote in advance in exchange for special bennies — not so here in Alaska.) In Alaska, at least in recent years, we divide into teams based on whether a legislator chooses to join the fraternity.

At one point, not many years ago, every Republican legislator was a member of the fraternity. The cost for joining the fraternity is simple: a promise to vote with the fraternity when called upon to do so, and to approve the state budget endorsed by the fraternity — no matter what's in it.

As long as a majority of legislators are willing to join the fraternity, and renew their membership each year, the dysfunction in Juneau may happily continue (at least happily from the perspective of the fraternity).

But three years ago, on March 16, 2015, the dysfunction that has haunted our Legislature for so many years began to come apart. First, Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, stood with her district against the fraternity's 2015 budget boondoggle and had her membership in the fraternity revoked.

Then Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, did the same, followed shortly thereafter by Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer. The price of membership had became too high, and one Mat-Su legislator after another decided that representing the voters took precedence over loyalty to the fraternity.

That unraveling has now picked up speed. This month, Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, took the next step by declining to join the fraternity in the first place.

Two years ago, all nine Mat-Su legislators had pledged to join the fraternity. Today, eight Mat-Su legislators have either declined to join or turned in their membership card when the fraternity asked for more than they could give. The fraternity continues to exist, but with your help it will be formally put to rest on Election Day this August.

What will your legislator (or favorite candidate) do to keep increases in government spending in check? Ask them. If they are still entertaining the idea of pledging to the fraternity, the answer is "probably not much."

Why is that? Because the very existence of the fraternity is based on convincing legislators to vote for budgets that they themselves do not believe in. No matter what part of the state you live in, you have every right to demand better from your elected officials.

Today, legislators from both parties are pursuing ways to use the Permanent Fund to increase current levels of spending. If they continue down that path they will be doing right by the lobbyists, and by the government contractors (who hire the lobbyists). But what about all the Alaskans who don't have a lobbyist on payroll?

What about those Alaskans for whom life will never involve getting a government contract? And from whom, by the end of this year, the state will likely have taken $4,000 (per person) from raids on the PFD alone?

Will they give members of the fraternity a free pass on Election Day? We'll know soon enough. It's less than six months away.

Rep. David Eastman represents the Mat-Su in the Alaska State House.

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

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