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July 30, 2021

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Friday, July 9, 2021

Unconstitutional & Unfit

WHAT-THE-HECK-A-THON – Part 1

We had not one but two marathon floor sessions this week. It started off in the House where mostly-minority Republican budget amendments were considered. Several passed with the assistance of majority Republicans, most notably Rep. Kelly Merrick (R-Eagle River) and House Speaker Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak). (Remember the majority coalition in the House is made up of Democrats, and a few independents and Republicans – the minority contains only Republicans who don’t want to work with Dems). 

The operating budget finally passed 23-16 with two minority members (who were in the majority coalition last year but defected this year) Bart LeBon (R-Fairbanks) and Steve Thompson (R-Fairbanks) crossing over to vote with the majority. Sara Rasmussen (R-Anchorage), who isn’t a member of any coalition, also voted for the budget. After this it will be reconciled with the Senate.

As you were likely anticipating, although the budget passed, it was not without the usual grandstanding and shenanigans. 

The session started with Speaker Louise Stutes laying down the ground rules – makers of amendments had two minutes to discuss the amendment and two minutes for wrap up. Right on cue, David Eastman (R-Wasilla) protested that this was highly unfair. Rep. Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage) reminded Eastman that last time, he had gotten up to speak TWENTY FOUR times, and maybe that’s why there needed to be the two minute rule. >ZING<

There were 71 amendments, and amendments to amendments, so we can’t discuss them all here, but here are some notable moments. And even with only two minutes allowed, the session went on for 7 hours and 55 minutes (but who’s counting).


STOP BEING EMOTIONAL ABOUT ABUSED CHILDREN!

Early on, Rep. Mike Prax, Republican from North Pole (or as Rep. Cathy Tilton likes to say, “from The North Pole” got us going with a spate of amendments which were all directed at cuts of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Office of Chidren’s Services (OCS) affecting mental health programs, frontline social workers, and a program called Circles of Support which is designed to keep families together and prevent situations where the state has to intervene and remove children from their homes. Oh, and foster care. 

[Rep. Mike Prax (R-North Pole), Rep. Kevin McCabe (R-Big Lake), behind]

Democratic legislators spoke up, pointing out that Alaska is in crisis with over 28,000 cases of harm to children reported in the past year, 11,000 of which have so far been verified. Alaska has the highest rates of child trauma in the nation – a shocking one in three children under the age of 9 will be affected by OCS, and early childhood traumas lead to a lifetime of challenges which often have negative outcomes for kids, and for the state in terms of corrections costs. Each incident also costs the state over $300,000. So budget cuts to OCS are “penny wise and pound foolish” as Rep. Ivy Spohnholz pointed out.

[Rep. Kevin McCabe (R-Big Lake)]

Rep. Chirs Kurka (R-Wasilla) and former head of Alaska Right to Life, piped up and said sure it’s “a horrible situation, BUT we can confidently say, looking at history, that throwing money at problems doesn’t fix them.” Rep. Kevin McCabe (R-Big Lake) agreed, saying, “as a legislature we need to stop being emotional about this. We can’t just continue to throw money at programs that may be useless.”

[From the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services]

So I guess in Republican-world if we stopped being all gooey and sentimental about children and just red-lined OCS, everything would be great because the State would be saving so much money, right? 

Most of these amendments failed to pass. And this is the first reminder to everyone that if we hadn’t picked up Rep. Liz Snyder (D-Anchorage) and Rep. Calvin Schrage (I-Anchorage) in the November 2020 election, and if we didn’t have a solid contingent of Democrats in there making the case, things could have gone very badly for these kids and families.

HEY, HAS ANYONE SEEN THE CONSTITUTION?

We detailed this phenomenon before, and it’s back again. Republicans, in order to bolster their conservative cred with the base, love to insert language into bills or create amendments that restrict abortion or cut funding affecting it.

These restrictions are always unconstitutional, which means that if the legislature passes them, organizations who monitor such things will sue the state in order to get the law or language overturned so these unconstitutional restrictions are not allowed to stand. 

The court then finds these restrictions unconstitutional (because they are), and then the State of Alaska has to pay restitution of legal fees to the organization(s) who had to bring the suit because the legislature acted unconstitutionally. This reimbursement of court costs can range from a few hundred thousand dollars, to millions. And in case anyone’s been power-napping under a rock for the past few years, we don’t have a lot of money to burn, which is supposedly why Reps. Kurka, and McCabe & Crew want to cut the Office of Children’s Services budget (see above).

[Rep. Christopher Kurka’s official legislative photo]

When voters of the Mat-Su elected Rep. Christopher Kurka (R-Wasilla) (the former head of Alaska Right to Life) we knew this stuff was going to happen, and that it was going to cost the state big. Now, here we are. Kurka added an amendment to the operating budget to pull $350,000 in funding to Medicaid which is the amount used to pay for abortions which are covered under its provisions (medically necessary and for poor women). 

If you recall, Dunleavy tried these exact same shenanigans by de-funding the court system by a similar amount as punishment for the court’s ruling that pulling Medicaid funds for abortion is unconstitutional. That’s one of the several unconstitutional things Dunleavy did that precipitated the recall effort against him. It’s a big giant circle of shredding the Constitution and burning money.

Kurka had another amendment which went a step further saying that Medicaid will not pay for abortion. “The courts can’t tell us what to pay for and not to pay for,” Kurka said – all we have to do is ignore them. 

[The Supreme Court]

Yes, you may have a moment to process the fact that you know more about the separation of powers, and the Constitution, and how the courts work than at least several elected officials.

“Every time the legislature passes unconstitutional language it is litigated to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars for the state, and at this point it’s in to the millions of dollars that the state has spent on these lawsuits,” said Rep. Geran Tarr.

[From the Alaska Department of Law, Civil Division]

[My handy-dandy calculator app tells us that the total we’ve spent so far is $3,176,000.00.

Kevin McCabe from Big Lake chimed in, “I’m not sure that removing funding is against the Constitution. What we’re doin’ here is not unconstitutional, we’re just removing some funding.”  Then he said we should just put intent language in there that if we are directed by the courts to pay, we should just refuse to do it. 

[Also the Supreme Court]

[Matt Claman responded by informing McCabe that even according to disgraced former AG Kevin Clarkson, the long-time golden boy attorney of the conservative right, we are required to pay the money that the courts rule we have to pay, and that Clarkson said there is no point in having this intent language. 

[Rep. Matt Claman (D-Anchorage explains law to Kevin McCabe]

Having no point is kind of David Eastman (R-Wasilla)’s specialty, so he went on to tell us he thinks that this is just “reaffirming the precept that our state government and the money we appropriate comes from the consent of the governed.” And that “many people” he’s talked to are not in favor of this spending, so “this amendment corrects a mistake that has been made by the Supreme Court… It’s time for activist judges to listen to the people.” The Supreme Court will be shocked to learn that some people in David Eastman’s district get to decide when they’ve made a mistake. 

[And once again… The Supreme Court]

And David Eastman and the rest of the Republicans who supported this amendment may be surprised at what the rest of us seem to know. Alaska is a pretty solidly pro-choice state. So, no, the court is not out of step with the people, the will of the people, or the Constitution – in Alaska and nationally.

[*Rabbit hole warning! This LINK to Pew Research Center will bring you to a very interesting page that lets you compare Alaska with other states on a wide range of hot-button social and cultural issues.]

Rep. Ivy Spohnholz reminded people that “Alaska’s constitution clearly defines a right to privacy and equal protection,” and that it’s been affirmed numerous times. “Sometimes in this room we are a little selective about which parts of the constitution we follow and which we don’t.” Then she said If you really want to prevent abortion, expand access to birth control and reproductive education. (This is absolutely true, but Republican legislatures have repeatedly voted against expanded access to birth control, so we all know that’s not what this is about).

Then Sarah Vance asked for permission to read from the Constitution. She read the privacy clause, paused, and said smugly, “Nowhere is ‘abortion’ mentioned in our state constitution.” I was waiting for someone to mention that nowhere is abortion mentioned in the Bible either, but nobody did. Vance did concede that, yes, there have been court rulings… but that this action mereily “rubs with an action by the courts.” (I ran out of Supreme Court memes)

Kevin McCabe shook his head, “These claims that the constitution somehow allows the right to abortion through that privacy clause. I can’t believe what I’m hearing about that.” Rep. Andy Josephson (D-Anchorage, and an attorney) explained that the privacy clause in the Alaska Constitution is far stronger and broader than the implied privacy protections of the U.S. Constitution. And that six previous cases that have already been litigated will guarantee we lose the suit that will be brought.

[Beleaguered Rep. Andy Josephson trying to explain how the law works. And no I don’t know what’s going on with his tie, but maybe it’s some kind of legislative Morse code for “send more Democrats because I’m surrounded by idiots.”]

Former teacher, Sarah Hannan (D-Juneau) also tried her best to teach Republicans what the role of the courts are. “Courts are designed to evaluate whether a circumstance meets our law or our constitution. The Alaska Supreme court has ruled, and its rulings are superior to law.” It may make Republicans sad, but the Supreme Court can, in fact, find laws unconstitutional. “For Medicaid services, which means you’re poor, politicians don’t get to decide which medical treatment you receive. Our courts don’t decide whether they like or don’t like laws, they decide whether they comply with our Constitution.”

[Rep. Ben Carpenter, (R-Nikiski)]

Medical treatment justifying abortion?” shot back a visibly angry Ben Carpenter (R-Nikiski) “As if pregnancy is a disease that needs to be cured? It’s insulting to the people who cannot defend themselves to suggest that a woman has the right to go get pregnant and a right to end that life. She had a choice and the baby does not.”

It’s rather staggering, but it appears that Rep. Carpenter (who gets to make laws covering these things) has no idea or doesn’t care about the many reasons for medically-necessary abortions, nor the fact that not every pregnancy is a “choice” made by a woman.  Rep. Tarr reminded Carpenter that today there will be three reported rapes in Alaska – as there are every day.

[Rep. Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage)]

George Rauscher (R-Sutton) said that as a grandfather raising a grandson, he supports the amendment. Grier Hopkins (D-Fairbanks) said that as a father and husband, he supports allowing women to make choices for themselves, and can’t claim to understand the circumstances in which a woman may find herself when making that decision.

Rep. Ken McCarty (R-Eagle River) said that paying for abortion is paying for “a selective procedure… Are we paying for someone’s plastic surgery?” Again someone with no concept of medically necessary abortion. And btw, Medicaid doesn’t cover plastic surgery or elective procedures.

The final wrap-up came when Rep. Kurka, who introduced the amendments, informed everyone what he believes about his oath of office to uphold and defend the Constitution. Ready? He said that as legislators,“our oath of office is not to protect and defend the constitution as interpreted by the courts.” 

Now everyone gets to interpret the Constitution however they want to, I guess. I mean, why even have courts at all?  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

And despite every legislator in the room knowing these amendments were unconstitutional, the “we love the constitution except when we don’t” party passed them both. So, here we go again.

[Votes to defund Medicaid budget by $350k]
[Votes to stop Medicaid funding for all medically necessary abortions for poor women]

For a group of people who claim to hate Planned Parenthood, they sure do like sending gobs of money to their lawyers! Maybe they’ll send Kurka a cake, or a thank you note.

We’ll definitely keep you posted on how much we have to fork over for this unnecessary and utterly predictable grandstanding. 

If you want to go down the legislative rabbit hole and see a list of all the amendments, and which ones passed and failed click HERE.

You’ll find a great amendment from Rep. Liz Snyder (D-Anchorage) that reinstated 50 positions in the Division of Public Assistance that were going to be cut in the Governor’s proposal. It ensures the Division has the staff it needs to continue providing its services until then. Thanks 2020 Anchorage Democratic voters! This one is yours!


WHAT-THE-HECK-A-THON PART 2

As if that wasn’t enough, we also had a joint session of the House and the Senate to vote on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s appointments to various positions including boards and commissions.

There were more than 180 appointments made, and again, I can’t cover them all, but here are a few that stood out.

ATTORNEY GENERAL – TREG TAYLOR

The controversial nominee was approved by a vote of only 35-24 – a slimmer margin than Dunleavy’s original AG, Kevin Clarkson, who was also controversial. The last two men in the AG or Acting AG spot resigned one after the other over sexual harassment issues. 

There wasn’t as much debate as there should have been, and if you want to know why, read this piece from Dermot Cole who has been pounding the drum on Taylor. Also, you can refresh your memory with a previous issue of Tall Tales from Juneau where we discuss Ben Stevens’ journey from disgraced, corrupt Senate President, to obscurity, to Dunleavy’s Chief of Staff, to ConocoPhillips and how Treg Taylor is handling that HERE. [Scroll down to ‘Ben Stevens Gets Away Again.’]

[The new fancy combined vote board with House votes on the left, and Senate 
votes on the right]


BIG GAME COMMERCIAL SERVICES BOARD – PETER BUIST

Sen. Jesse Kiehl objected strongly to this one.

“The issue is one of temperament,” he said, describing a “disdainful and dismissive” approach to Alaskans who disagree with him. “His comments online and in public cross a line. When you start referring to people as ‘smarmy, slobbering sycophants’ or ‘slobbering orgasmic liberals,’ or when we call to get rid of one political party, which is an abhorrent notion to us as Americans,” he said it’s gone too far. “When we talked to him in the Resources Committee about that, he first denied any knowledge of ever having done such a thing. When we reminded him – and this is perhaps the most disappointing part – he said, ‘I just don’t see what it has to do with serving on a board.’ Our boards and commissions hear serious and weighty matters, and every Alaskan deserves to know that they have a fair shot and a fair shake regardless of what letter might be after their names.”

Bart LeBon (R-Fairbanks) said, “Yes, he has a strong character” went on to say he was always “fair-minded, and always exercises sound judgment.”  MMmmmmkay.

Mike Prax called him “a colorful character” but “actually a thoughtful person.”

And so Buist was confirmed. As a bonus, here’s a story about Pete Buist, who said bravo to a trapper who sued a woman for springing three traps on a hiking trail near Juneau, and freeing a bald eagle (which later had to be euthanized) from two of them. Buist says he would have sued her too if they were his traps.

NO PEBBLE. NOT EVER. AND ESPECIALLY NOT ON THE BOARD OF FISH.

Can a current employee of Pebble Mine get an appointment to the Board of Fish? Half the world’s wild salmon comes from Bristol Bay, and the Pebble project is a “lightning rod issue” as Rep. Bryce Edgmon called it, not only in the region but across the state. The former Speaker of the House spoke out strongly against Abe Williams for the position, given that he is such a “polarizing figure.” Sen. Lyman Hoffman echoed the call for a no vote, citing his belief that Williams would favor wealthy Outsiders over Alaskans by advocating for more and larger vessels in the Bristol Bay region. That one-two punch from the legislators in Williams’ home district did the job, and he was voted down by a staggering 41-18. Take that, Pebble.

WHO AMONG US DOES NOT HAVE MULTIPLE FISH & GAME VIOLATIONS??

But wait, there’s more! Lynn Keogh, nominated to the Board of Game had some issues as well. 

He’s got a CourtView sheet a mile long which includes several … wait for it… fish and game violations! Plus, a conservative legislature already rejected him for this very position in 2012 – for that very reason. During his hearing in the Resources Committee he didn’t seem to recall any of those violations and when he sort of maybe did, he was unrepentent.

I’m old enough to remember when the notion of gassing wolf pups in their dens, shooting young pups, snaring bears, helicopter transport of bear hunters, hunting seasons that extend into denning seasons, and pursuit of wolves on snowmachines were considered abhorrent to most Alaskans. But Keogh is all for them.

Kevin McCabe (R-Big Lake) said we should just ignore CourtView.

“I’m not sure we should act on allegations from CourtView. CourtView is notorious for not being able to determine what exactly happened. It just merely says you were in court – unless you know what you’re doing in there and you can figure out what the violation was. I would like to hear, instead of allegations – nothing that was said by [Josephson] would hold up in court because it was clearly circumstantial. It was his opinion. It’s what he said.”

[Rep. Sara Rasmussen (R-West Anchorage)]

Sara Rasmussen pointed out that, hey, we ALL break the law, right? I mean, opening your spouse’s mail could be considered a felony, so…

The inimitable Andy Josephson asked, “We have 730,000 Alaskans. Can we pick someone who remembers their wildlife violations and owns up to them? Can we pick somebody who hasn’t been previously rejected by the 60 of us?”

No. No, we cannot.

KRISTIE BABCOCK – RURAL ALASKA IS NEVER REPRESENTED ENOUGH SO WHY START NOW?

Kristie Babcock, the wife of Tuckerman Babcock (the ousted former Chief of Staff for Dunleavy, who was creating a circular firing squad in the Republican Party before it was cool), was appointed to the Alaska Judicial Council.

For an eye-opening read about why the other Babcock’s appointment is horrible, check out this piece by Dermot Cole.

Matt Claman read from the Constitution and pointed out that although it mandates assuring that there is representation from different regions of the state, her appointment would mean that all three public positions would be from the same region. That’s never happened before, and it shouldn’t happen now.

There’s that darn Constitution again. 

The biggest “Constitutional Defender” of them all, Sen. Lora Reinbold, said about Claman’s comment, “I am going to say that he may have a valid point, but I’m not going to speak to that… She’s a fellow East High Thunderbird! She’s also a lovely woman who is smart and hard-working and “she waits on you hand and foot when you’re in her home.” Constitution? Pffffffff. She’s always right there with a refill on your iced tea. Go Thunderbirds!

David Eastman understands that part of the Constitution too, but says “it’s an artifact” and “these decisions were made decades ago and don’t reflect the current reality in which we all live and breathe.” Has anyone checked the expiration date on the Constitution because I really thought it was still good.

[Rep. Neal Foster (D-Nome)]

Neal Foster pointed out that Ms. Babcock herself sent an email in the form of an open letter to legislators and addressed geographic representation. She said there have been numerous times that certain regions don’t have representation, and that only in 18 of the last 62 years someone from rural western or northwest Alaska held a seat. This argument backfired for Neal Foster who said, “This strikes me as a reason we need to have more rural representation!”

Senator Donny Olson asked, “Do you think someone who lives on Diomede Island thinks they have the same representation? The rural voice has been silenced.”

Sara Rasmussen says she totally gets it and she thinks we should do everything possible that we can to help rural Alaska. Except this.

WE DID NAZI THIS COMING

Andy Josephson started the remarks opposing Annette Gwathney-Jones to the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority by reminding us of Neera Tanden, whose nomination to the cabinet was pulled by President Biden because of Senate Republicans’ objections to her inflammatory Facebook posts. He said he finds Gwalthney-Jones’ posts “unbecoming of the Mental Health Trust Authority.” We can all get hot and exercised about things that happen politically in the world, It happens to all of us. But it struck me as not being worthy of the Mental Health Trust Authority.”

“Ms. Jones is on my facebook feed I see her stuff all the time and I don’t think too much of it,” said Kevin McCabe. “But it troubles me that we would vote a lady down based on hearsay. We haven’t seen the post in question. Somebody said hey she made a crappy facebook post – it’s political, it’s an opinion. We don’t know. We don’t know if it was an attack. We have no idea. So we’re going to vote this woman down based on the basis of a facebook post that one member says he saw that he didn’t like?”

“I hadn’t intended to speak,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, “but since there is a question about the facebook post, and there are dozens and dozens of them. They are often attacking immigrants, they are often attacking Democrats… I think for the Mental Health Trust that’s unacceptable. And I’ll just read you a couple.

“On January 23rd there’s an article about the President dealing with immigrants being counted in the United States census, and here’s a quote from Ms. Gwalthney-Jones. ‘Creating a Dem voting bloc. All about votes and power.’ 

“There’s one from January 17, where the President signed an executive order… and these are her words, ‘Only an incompetent fool or an anti-American would change the policies that are working very well for the prosperity of the people in our republic.’ 

“Now, we can agree or disagree with policies that our elected officials take, but I just think this is incendiary – to say someone is anti-American on the first day in office because of a policy you disagree with – that, quite frankly, many Alaskans agree with? 

“There was one on January 15th that talked about a bunch of university students who were concerned about Capitol Hill violence and wanted to take some action, and here’s what she said. “Kind of like how Hitler went after the Jews.”

😳

THEN, Senator David Wilson (R-Wasilla) interrupted Wielechowski with a point of order from Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure (which governs the conduct of the legislature). He stood and read from the manual. “‘In the decorum of debate, reading the House a letter which is abusive should not be permitted,’ he said loftily. And we’re getting down to the overall decorum of debate, that should be upheld, and I believe [Senator Wielechowski] is not following the proper reading of the letters and communication.”

“I think my point was just made,” rebutted Wielechowski. “The statements that have been made by this person who is up for this very important position, I can’t even read on the floor in this body! Because she likened university students… “Kind of like Hitler went after the Jews.” That’s her statement. That’s not a statement I’m making up. 

“And I’ll add that I’m only reading these because there was some testimony, a statement a while ago that said ‘we can’t possibly vote against this person’ because they were alleging these comments were made up. These are not made up comments. These are real comments. They’re on her Facebook page and I think they’re relevant. I think that when someone starts likening university students who are exercising their first amendment rights to Hitler going after the Jews – I’m sorry Mr. President, but that disqualifies them from a position on the Mental Health Trust.”

[Mic drop!]

And so now that Kevin McCabe and everyone else knows exactly what was said in the now-not-so-mysterious Facebook posts, did it make any difference to him, or the other green votes on this board? Nope.

It was a squeaker, but Ms. Gwalthney-Jones will no longer have a position on the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority Board of Trustees.


IT AIN’T OVER YET…

This only scratched the surface of the week’s proceedings, and there’s much more to come including not one but TWO special sessions announced by the governor – one on May 20, and one in August. The first will deal with finishing up the budget, and the giant elephant in the room called the PFD. The second is to work on constitutional amendments regarding spending and taxes.

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