It shouldn’t be said that bitter partisan politics never gives rise to innovation. After the left-leaning majority on the Assembly made changes to Mayor Dave Bronson’s budget, Bronson vetoed most of those changes and the Assembly overrode his veto. So far, so good — or at least, precedented. After that, however, Bronson and his administration adopted a novel strategy: They acted as though their budget was in effect anyway, without any of the Assembly’s changes. Without telling the Assembly or even some agencies funded by the municipality, the administration used the numbers it wanted by leaning on a section of city code that states the chief financial officer must sign off on revenue estimates for the budget to go into effect — and since municipal CFO Travis Frisk didn’t approve the Assembly’s somewhat rosier revenue guidance, the administration argues it was justified in following its own plan as though it had passed.
This is only the latest salvo, of course, in the history of bad blood between Bronson and the Assembly. From executive branch appointees to homeless plans to municipal mask mandates, the executive and legislative branches of Anchorage’s government have scarcely missed an opportunity to cross swords and use wedge issues to rally their respective bases. Neither side is exclusively to blame, but as this fight and a half-dozen others show, Bronson’s administration has a tendency to employ new tactics to assert control in matters traditionally seen as the purview of the Assembly.
There’s nothing wrong with divided government; in a best-case scenario, as we hoped would be the case with Bronson and the Assembly, each side acts as a check on the other, ensuring neither is able to overreach its mandate and watching to make sure that public resources are allocated wisely. Unfortunately, we’re very far from a best-case scenario. The administration and the Assembly are at a point where, by default, they assume the worst about one another, and seem more interested in trying to score political points by thwarting the other side’s policy proposals. It hasn’t even been a year since Bronson took office, but prospects for improvement seem poor.
If the enmity in Anchorage’s municipal government seems more familiar to Washington, D.C., than Alaska, there’s a reason: Thanks to social media and sprawling, well-funded political interest groups, the past decade-plus has seen a profound “nationalizing” of our state and local politics, with elected representatives increasingly divided into political silos employing scorched-earth tactics to score wins. It’s an ugly, zero-sum politics, and it hasn’t served us well at any level. And the past half-decade has increasingly featured new, particularly destructive tactics aimed not so much at making the system work a particular way but breaking it to keep your opponents from “winning.”
As the administration’s reliance on a relatively arcane piece of city code to reject the Assembly’s budget, without, it should be noted, informing the Assembly or others that this was happening, shows, there are many places — probably hundreds — where legitimate legal conflict exists in the way our system was designed. These spots are cropping up and spawning lawsuits between branches of government now not because no one ever read the laws closely, but because politicians are looking harder and harder for places to find leverage — and to break the system if they don’t get their way. Our reliance on norms, traditions and precedents served us well while political actors were willing to abide by them, but in today’s anything-goes atmosphere, they’re ditched whenever it’s politically expedient.
That’s a problem at all levels of government, but particularly so in local politics. Running a city should be far less about culture wars than fixing potholes and keeping the streets plowed. Anchorage residents deserve a government focused on the items that move our city forward, not one where elected officials snipe at one another to gin up outrage among the most radical elements of their supporters. Bronson’s election as mayor in 2021 and the reelection of Assembly incumbents this year means we will have a divided government for the remainder of this mayoral term. Our officials on both sides of this partisan gulf should show leadership by putting differences aside where possible, even if it means occasional compromise on their respective agendas. If the mayor and Assembly instead spend the next two years battling each other in public meetings and in court lawsuits, we’ll all be poorer for it.