Grading the Alaska Legislature as its one-month mark approaches

If all Alaskans saw were the daily goings-on at the Capitol Building in Juneau, they could be forgiven if they forgot that the state is facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis in the midst of a pandemic. Sometimes it appears legislators have, too. The state’s savings have been spent down to the point that a raid on the Permanent Fund appears possible, regardless of whether legislators sign off on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s terminally short-sighted dividend plan. And Alaska’s disaster declaration for COVID-19 is set to expire because of legislative inaction (and, in some cases, active opposition), threatening the state’s laudable progress on administering vaccines for the pandemic that has killed hundreds of Alaskans and imperiled our economy. Yet you’d be hard pressed to discern a sense of urgency as lawmakers approach the one-third mark in the 90-day legislative session. If legislators were school students, few would be at the top of their Zoom classes. Here’s a snapshot of how they’re doing:

Alaska State House: D

The grade of “D” is meant to indicate “deficient,” which is an apt descriptor for the House so far. In a repeat of 2019′s deadlocked month, this year’s crop of representatives spent more than three weeks at loggerheads, divided 20-20 on organizing. Floor sessions resembled the movie “Groundhog Day,” with members attempting in vain to nominate a permanent speaker in votes that all failed on an even split.

On Feb. 11, the barest hint of progress came when Rep. Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River, earned herself a personal grade of A by breaking the tie and voting to appoint Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, as permanent speaker — though Merrick was quick to specify she was not crossing the aisle to caucus with the multi-partisan coalition. The election of a permanent speaker isn’t much in the way of progress (committees have yet to organize and it’s not clear who, if anyone, will cross the line from the Republican caucus), but it at least offered a glimmer of hope that there will be progress toward regular order — and, you know, maybe on digging ourselves out of our fiscal mess. Don’t hold your breath.

Alaska State Senate: C+

The Senate’s primary accomplishment so far has been organizing into majority and minority caucuses, which wouldn’t be seen as any major accomplishment but for the House’s inability to do the same. The overall C+ grade for the body is the result of some wildly disparate grades among committees, however.

The Senate Finance Committee gets a B; although there has been little progress toward — or even talk about — a sustainable fiscal solution for the longer term, the group has at least held hearings where members stared the gravity of our predicament in the face, such as the likelihood that oil companies’ corporate tax burdens will be less than they get back in refunds this year. The job before this committee over the next few months is monumental, and let’s hope they can rise to the challenge and raise that grade in the coming semester.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, on the other hand, gets a hard F. Chaired by Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, the committee has done little work on actual bills or matters related to the judiciary, and has instead consisted of off-the-rails presentations by COVID-19 mask skeptics, fact-free sermons from Sen. Reinbold and swift cutting-off of testimony that contradicts the chairwoman’s own opinions. Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, did earn himself a little extra credit Feb. 10, however; when Sen. Reinbold claimed that state health mandates had led to a spike in suicides, Sen. Kiehl raised a point of order to remind her that what she was saying wasn’t true.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy: C

OK, the governor isn’t a member of the Legislature, but that doesn’t let him off the hook for grading purposes. Gov. Dunleavy’s budget plan is, as usual, a mixed bag — a budget with cuts (some of them more realistic than others) paired with a disastrous Permanent Fund dividend plan that would shortchange our future and limit the ability of the fund to sustainably cover the cost of government services. And his administration suffered another black eye when Acting Attorney General Ed Sniffen resigned in disgrace just before the ADN broke the news that he allegedly committed sexual abuse of a minor three decades ago, while Outside on a trip as the coach of a high school mock trial team. And on Friday, word emerged that the governor had forced Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price to resign, another unforced error in an administration already plagued by them.

Where the governor does earn high marks so far is in the state’s efforts dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. The toll here has been far less severe than in most other states, and Alaska leads the nation in per capita administration of vaccines. Much of the heavy lifting has been done by staff at the Department of Health and Social Services, Native health services and medical personnel, from Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink (personal grade: A) to the retired nurses (personal grades: A+ across the board) who have come back into service to help administer vaccines. Gov. Dunleavy has listened to the advice of epidemiology experts, accelerating the state’s nation-leading vaccine program and opening it up to a wider swath of the population. That’s more than the governors of most states, led by Republicans and Democrats alike, can claim.

Going forward, it’s safe to say that legislators have plenty of room for improvement during the rest of the legislative session. If they’re going to accomplish more in the coming months than they have in this one, however, it will require their constituents — that’s you — reminding them why they’re in Juneau. We need fiscal solutions, not childish turf wars. There’s time enough left in the session for lawmakers to bring up their grades, but only if they apply themselves.