Alaskans want solutions, not brinksmanship, on the budget

“To give a minority a negative upon the majority… is… to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser… The public business must, in some way or other, go forward… If a… minority can control the opinion of a majority… the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater…” — Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers No. 22

Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s framers, feared the control of the majority by the minority, noting his concern that the majority’s will could be “injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated,” by a “state of inaction” that would “hinder the doing of what may be necessary,” and the “keeping of affairs in the same unfavorable posture in which they may happen to stand at particular periods.”

What was Hamilton saying, exactly? That the will of the majority must be felt and that the business of the people must be completed.  Hamilton’s principles continue to guide us.

The narrowly avoided shutdown

June 28 and July 1 were hugely significant days in the annals of Alaska political history.  On June 28, the Alaska Legislature avoided a first-ever government shutdown. Although every member of the House Majority had previously voted for a July 1 effective date (the  date that authorized the spending of money in the state budget bill for the new fiscal year), 16 of the 18 House Minority members had withheld that vote. Never before had an Alaska legislative body seriously threatened to shut down the operation of government in this way.

I thank Reps. James Kaufman, Bart LeBon, Ken McCarty, Tom McKay, Laddie Shaw, Steve Thompson and Cathy Tilton for delivering the votes necessary to keep the wheels of government turning so that our economy and society could function.

I was in the House Minority from 2013-2016. During that time, a minority member never contemplated leveraging the entire operation of government for a demand. Never. While we negotiated usage of the Constitutional Budget Reserve for relatively modest add-backs (additions to the budget of items cut by the majorities), it never occurred to us not to deliver effective date votes on the budget, as doing so would negatively affect the lives of most every man, woman and child in the state. We knew harming the state and its people was bad politics and worse policy.

Why did nearly every member of the House Minority originally choose to push the state’s basic operations to the cliff’s edge? In the debate, I heard three main criticisms: First, members believed that their voices were unheard and disrespected; second, House Minority members expressed frustration with having to support the work of the Conference Committee; and third, House Minority members demanded consideration of a “fiscal plan.”

On the first point, I can only cite to Alexander Hamilton. Minority voices were heard, considered and fully entertained, but the majority’s will is frequently felt in our democratic system of governance. Minority policy positions were heard at the House Finance subcommittee level in February and March, and again on the House floor in May. On a related topic, in 2021 alone, 10 separate minority sponsored bills or resolutions passed the State House. During my four-year tenure in the minority, a grand total of 14 such bills passed the House, others remaining uncalendared and unheard.

To the second point, adoption of the Conference Committee report, Conference Committees are standard operating procedure. Our Uniform Rule 42 lays out their creation and procedure. When the House and Senate versions of a bill differ, the differences must be reconciled. How else would a budget pass, if not for compromise between the bodies? It’s noteworthy that four of six members of the Conference Committee were Republicans. Therefore, House Minority criticism of the Conference Committee Report was mostly a criticism of fellow Republicans. I have no dog in that hunt.

Third, and finally, House Minority members demanded consideration of a “fiscal plan.”  I had not previously heard discussion of this topic from minority members. Certainly, they appeared to want the spending cap and Permanent Fund dividend reforms sought by the governor. Typically, however, a “plan” entails something more than one or two items. The governor has put new revenue on the special session “call” for August, while the House Minority has been conspicuously silent on that topic. Its proposal for a comprehensive plan is mostly unclear to me. At any rate, my caucus colleagues and I have fought for a balanced fiscal plan since Gov. Bill Walker convened a Conference of Alaskans at the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus in June, 2015, six years ago. I welcome the interest of the House Minority in a fiscal plan and look forward to its proposal to balance expenditures with revenues.

The governor’s vetoes

I had thought, incorrectly, that the governor might temper his tendency to veto and that we had moved beyond 2019-2020. His vetoes continue to mystify. He vetoed the items that he, himself, had requested (the Alaska Long Trail and millions for the Alaska tourism industry) albeit the financing mechanism of some measures had changed. He vetoed funds to combat domestic violence. He vetoed sobering centers that we found could not be funded through Medicaid matching dollars. In a state leading the nation in syphilis, chlamydia, and tuberculosis, vetoes to public health nursing are truly baffling. According to the Daily News, the Civil Air Patrol saved 6 lives in 2018 alone. No matter; he vetoed that funding as well.

Most remarkably, he vetoed funding which his own department of Health and Social Services had suggested — at least by implication — might meaningfully reduce a 51% turnover rate at the Office of Children’s Services. While building legislative empathy and knowledge of departmental need is always valuable, it must be demoralizing to suggest a fix for something at the highest levels only to see the governor veto that very thing. Finally, most legislators voted for a PFD of $1,100 this coming October. After the House Minority refused to approve funding for about half that sum the governor, astonishingly, vetoed the remainder down to zero.

In this climate, while I remain ever hopeful that progress can be made at the August special session, foreboding winds lie ahead.

Andy Josephson was elected to the Alaska State House of Representatives in 2012 and represents residents in Midtown, the university area and East Anchorage.

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