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November 29, 2021

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Friday, November 19, 2021

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Sunday, November 14, 2021

‘Full of madness!’ -

Friday, November 5, 2021

The Good, the Bad, & the Beginning of the End

NO BY PROXY

Remember a few months ago when an angry rioting mob stormed the Capitol in Washington D.C. armed with bear spray, flag poles, baseball bats, and other assorted weaponry and tried to hunt down members of Congress, and overthrow a legal democratic election?

Apparently some members of Congress would like to just gloss that over. Last week the House of Representatives voted 252-175 to create a bipartisan committee to investigate how that happened and what we ought to do about it. 35 Republicans voted for it. Don Young was not one of them. 

Don Young has missed 14.2% of roll call votes in his career. The lifetime average for those currently serving is 2%, by the way. But he didn’t miss THIS one. He voted NO, by proxy just as Marjorie Taylor Greene (Q-GA), and Kevin McCarthy, and Donald Trump wanted him to. I guess that means they’ve officially abandoned the “Antifa and Black Lives Matter did it” story, and know that the investigation would point squarely in their direction. 

Next we get to find out if our two Senators think a violent assault on our democracy might be worth looking into. Stay tuned.


SCOTUS TAKING UP ABORTION 

You’ve probably heard that the US Supreme Court has made the decision to hear a landmark abortion case, which could gut Roe v. Wade. The decision to hear Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, sets the stage for the court’s newly expanded and emboldened 6-3 conservative majority to reconsider, if not reverse, decades of precedent.

On a state level in 2021, 536 bills restricting abortion have been introduced across the country. Of those, 61 have passed in 13 states, with nearly half of those signed into law in the final week of April alone. According to the Guttmacher Institute, which studies this legislation, 21 states are hostile or extremely hostile to abortion rights, with another eight “leaning” hostile. Alaska is not one of those states, and don’t let these hard-right legislators tell you it is. Here’s the latest information from Pew Research on adults’ views on abortion in Alaska. This isn’t even close.

So how and why does the legislature keep bringing up and passing unconstitutional laws restricting abortion rights or defunding medically necessary abortions? 

1) Their districts are gerrymandered so that Republicans are over-represented in our legislature. 

2) It’s an issue that gets their socially conservative base to the polls. And as we’re seeing with the strangely high turnout in Anchorage for a hard-right socially conservative mayor – it’s more about turnout than popular opinion. Which leads us to:


HB206 – NO EXCEPTIONS

A predictable abortion ban bill was introduced this week in the House from Christopher Kurka (R-Wasilla), the former head of Alaska Right to Life, and co-sponsored by David Eastman (also R-Wasilla). This is a flat out abortion ban from the moment of conception, with no exception for rape or incest. The big concession is that if a doctor was trying to save a woman’s life and the pregnancy was terminated accidentally, the doctor would not be criminally prosecuted. 

Here’s the language of the bill. It’s been assigned to three committees in the House which means it will unlikely ever make it to the floor by the deadline next year, but it should also be a wakeup call that we need to maintain (or increase) the majority in the House, or this is the kind of stuff that will pass.

Kurka concluded with the coffee spit moment of the day by saying, “It’s time to stop being science deniers!”

Yes, this is the same Rep. Kurka featured in this incident👇 a couple months ago.

Mr. “Let’s stop being science deniers” said that enforcement of COVID-19 safety rules in the Capitol were a “thinly veiled power play.”  “Let’s end this charade!” he went on. “COVID-19 is here to stay. No measures we take are going to stop it, no matter how repressive a course, or unconstitutional.” He also wasn’t so sure the CDC was really basing their guidelines on “science.” The Speaker told him to mask up or leave. He left. 

But wait, there’s more on Kurka fun this week…



ASSISTED LIVING (BUT NOT *THAT* ASSISTED)

Last week, Rep. Mike Prax (R-North Pole) decided that one of the places we should cut the budget was the Office of Children’s Services. That’s right, those kids in harm’s way really suck up the dollars we could be giving to Conoco Phillips, et al. Fortunately, most of those amendments were defeated, thanks to Democrats.

This week, with vulnerable children off the table, it’s apparently time to target the elderly and infirmed. Christopher Kurka put forth some amendments to SB89 (dealing with rules for assisted living homes). His target? Food and internet for elderly/disabled people.

One of Kurka’s amendments removed part of the bill that said assisted living homes need to provide (at the resident’s expense) foods of their cultural preference. This is mostly going to come into play for Native residents where the health and psychological benefits of being able to enjoy traditional foods are huge. Kurka’s objection is that even though foods that comply with religious or health needs are already required and valid, CULTURAL foods are a “dietary whim.”

[Rep. Chris Kurka (R-Wasilla)]The

Rep. Liz Snyder (D-Anchorage) explained that cultural foods are related to both religious AND health needs. Current practice is to provide these foods because the outcomes are so positive, so this is just the statute reflecting what we do mostly already.

David Eastman (R-Wasilla) said it was “unfortunate” when we add mandates, and anyway it doesn’t have to do with “heartfelt religious concerns and health.” 

Ivy Spohnholz reminded everyone that “cultural preferences aren’t whims” and that they ARE  “deep and heartfelt.” “If your family and community has been eating something for 10,000 years, it seems like they should be able to do so.”

[Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, (D-Anchorage)]

Kevin McCabe, predictably, said that this would “be one more incursion into the free market” because owners would have to “capitulate to everyone’s need.”

Geran Tarr talked about the Alaska Farmland Trust and their focus on the healing power of food. She noted that the Executive Chef at the Alaska Native Medical Center said that providing traditional foods had tremendously positive health impacts, and that we want people to be as healthy as possible. She reiterated that the residents would pay the cost, not the provider. 

Kurka wrapped up by ignoring everything and saying, “It’s clear we are limiting the free market… If you pile on piles and piles and piles of regulations, then you are limiting the free market… And when you tell a business what they have to provide you are limiting. This goes too far.”

[Yes votes to deny cultural food at resident’s expense]

Not to be deterred, Kurka went on with his next amendment about “another quote unquote ‘enumerated right’” regarding communications in the home, namely internet access. The internet is not a fundamental right, he said.

Kevin “I never actually read the bill first” McCabe said he didn’t support the bill because, “What if they can’t provide internet? It might prevent someone from opening or maintaining a facility. And also “another legislative attempt to limit the free market!”

The bill clearly says that providing internet is “subject to availability.” 

Tiffany Zulkosky (D-Bethel) said it was made clear that this language in the bill would not be a burden if there isn’t quality or affordable internet at a particular time. “This language is not burdensome for rural areas, or those with insufficient data. There is a need that exists for elders to be connected with their loved ones in unforeseen circumstances.”

[Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky (D-Bethel)]

David Eastman:  “…something something Free market!”

Ivy Spohnholz clarfied that 97% of assisted living homes have internet access to the home already, and that residents should also have access to it.

Mike Prax (R-North Pole) says “the internet is ubiquitous, but water is too and you don’t have a right to be provided water… It’s the question of right vs. need. Internet is a privilege… we shouldn’t be making choices for people.” 

Let’s explore that world for a minute. Maybe some people don’t want to bathe and they only drink juice. Why should we have to provide water. It’s not a right. What if someone is blind? Why should they have to pay for electricity just so everyone else has a lightbulb in their room? They’re not using it. People don’t really need hot showers. Why should they be forced to pay for hot water when they could just take cold showers? 

Kurka wraps up by saying, “The internet is a wonderful thing. Being able to call your family is a wonderful thing. But by putting this requirement in the bill we are raising the cost for everybody. It’s unjust to make individuals pay for it to provide for others. The way we are choking the free market in this state is concerning to me.”

Luckily this amendment too failed to pass despite CHOKING THE FREE MARKET!!!

[Green voted to strip available internet access for residents from the bill]

And finally after this dark and dismal amendment debate over how we treat our elders who need help, we’re back to the main bill. Liz Snyder says the bill’s intent is to insert language that will bring us into compliance with The Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, provide basic services, freedom from abuse, food that meets religious, cultural, and health needs, the ability to have visitors, and for residents to live a life of autonomy and dignity. Snyder points out that if a facility can’t meet these needs, we have bigger problems. And the bill passes 30-10, no thanks to the names in red below.


“TRANS REPUBLICANS”

The moment went by quickly, but this week in a House Finance Committee meeting, a caller giving public testimony on a bill derisively referred to a legislator as a “trans Republican.” I guess this is the new term for RINO (Republican in name only)? Reporter Rashah McChesney noted the incident.

>>>Click HERE to watch the video clip.

Speaking of transphobia, Republican Shelley Hughes (R-Palmer) this week introduced an anti-trans sports bill which would basically disallow transgender girls from participating in high school sports. We’ll see this one pop up next session.


GOOD THINGS!

I don’t mean to shock you, but there were actually quite a few pretty fantastic things that happened last week too, and here are some of those!

HB55 DEFINED BENEFITS FOR FIRST RESPONDERS

The House voted to pass legislation that would provide a new retirement incentive (defined benefit plan) to help attract law enforcement officers and firefighters.

Alaska is notoriously bad at retaining police and firefighters because we’ve got a really uncertain retirement system that incentivizes what Rep. Andy Josephson (D-Anchorage) called “train and drain” meaning that people come to Alaska to get great training, but then drain out of the state after five years, taking their experience with them to other places that offer much better retirement plans to spend the bulk of their careers. As a matter of fact, Alaska is one of only two states that does not offer public safety workers any form of defined benefit retirement options. It’s a problem.

Reps. McCabe (R-Big Lake) and Kurka (R-Wasilla) spoke up about how they are really concerned about “golden handcuffs” that will keep police officers and firefighters here for too long. (???) 

[Kevin McCabe (R-Big Lake)]

Adam Wool says that the head of the Department of Public Safety said that recruitment and retention are problems and the current retirement plan is a huge part of that.

Tom McKay, freshman Republican from Anchorage, says that if we’re having such a tough time finding police and firefighters we should just poach them from Democrat cities that had rioting over the summer because “there should be a surplus.”

Zack Fields (D-Anchorage) says the rank and file have told us that the lack of a defined benefit plan is the root cause of high-cost turnover, and that management is telling us the same thing. This plan is structured so there is zero financial risk for the state. He also says that vacant positions are a public safety problem, and we pay in crime. “This bill supports the police.” He also points out that most people have a defined benefit called Social Security, but police and firefighters do not.

Sarah Vance (R-Homer) says that she thinks the police don’t receive enough appreciation and she totally supports the police. Just not now because “the timing is imprudent.”Boy, these supposed “Back the Blue” people sure don’t want to fund the police!

Despite them (see vote board above) HB 55 passed the House 25-15 with all Democrats voting yes, and it will now be transmitted to the Senate for work next session.

RECOGNITION OF ALASKA TRIBES

House Bill 123, a bill that formally recognizes the Alaska Native Tribes that have existed here and governed themselves for millennia got to the House floor Wednesday, too. Alaska’s history with tribes is fraught, and many Native people were forced to abandon their culture, identity, languages, and ways of life as Alaska moved toward statehood and after. HB 123 does not change the State’s relationship with Tribes, it simply affirms their status as already acknowledged and enumerated by the federal government. There is no “fiscal note” attached to the bill which means it doesn’t cost the state anything. And as a matter of fact, the state recognition opens up the avenue for millions of federal dollars to benefit rural Alaska.

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky (D-Bethel) sponsored the bill. She called it “significant because it is difficult to speak about expanding our relationship with Tribes when the State doesn’t acknowledge them in Alaska statute.”

Rep. Neal Foster (D-Nome) added, “Alaska relies on our Tribal partners to help provide services essential to Alaskans living in rural parts of the state. Tribes contribute to everything from public safety and transportation to healthcare and economic development.”

This should be a huge no-brainer unanimous yes vote, BUT…

The NO votes to acknowledge Alaska Native tribes were: David Eastman (R-Wasilla), Christopher Kurka (R-Wasilla), Kevin McCabe (R-Big Lake), and McCarty (R-Eagle River). Shame on them.

The bill now heads to the Senate where it will be taken up next session.

LANGUAGE REVITALIZATION

House Bill 47 is another bill that should have been a unanimous yes. All it does is shorten the name of “The Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council” to the “Council for Alaska Native Languages.” It also adds two members for a total of seven, to more adequately represent the wide cultural diversity of Alaska Native languages. It publishes a report every two years with recommendations and analysis.

There are 21 Alaska Native languages spoken today, and the council seeks to revitalize their use. Half the languages have fewer than 10 fluent speakers left. Anti-Native language practices and attempts in the past to eradicate Native culture are responsible for the sharp decline. 

“What kind of humans are we if we stand upon a foundation of racism and allow systems of communication that are tens of thousands of years old to be lost?” asked X̱’unei Lance Twitchell, a council member and Tlingit language scholar in this article on the council.

I suppose we could ask David Eastman (R-Wasilla) and Mike Prax (R-North Pole) who were the only two no votes.

INDUSTRIAL HEMP

Here’s one that’s been in the hopper for a long time. Back in the day, Senator Johnny Ellis pushed the creation of an industrial hemp program, and when he retired Sen. Shelley Hughes was handed the baton. It passed the Senate, and this week Rep. Grier Hopkins (D-Fairbanks) took it over the finish line.

[Back in the day it was the Freedom to Farm bill – SB8. Today it’s SB27!]

Industrial hemp is completely different from recreational marijuana and has many applications, from fiber, to cosmetics, to food supplements, to building materials, to paints and solvents, to animal feed, to biofuel. 

It has no psychogenic properties and has a THC level below 1%. But most important, it opens up a whole new industry in the agriculture sector and provides green alternatives to traditional products that use petroleum, and creates jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities.

It now goes to the governor’s desk for his signature.

*And a big congratulations to Rep. Hopkins and his wife Kristina who just became parents to a beautiful baby girl! Welcome to the world, Isidora!

THE LONG TRAIL 

Senator Bill Wielechowski scored a big win last week, when this amendment was accepted by the Senate! “The Long Trail” is a working name only, and the Senator has said that suggestions are welcome.

RESPECT AND CARE

Three more things of note to make you happy.

1) HJR16 from Geran Tarr asks the U.S. Congress to give the Hmong veterans who were such a lifeline for so many American soldiers in Viet Nam (many risking or losing everything) the same benefits as U.S. soldiers of that war passed with unanimous support.

2) SB19 passed both bodies, and extended the sunset date for the Special Education Service Agency, and increased funding for a program making sure that students with uncommon disabilities in smaller school districts aren’t overlooked and have their educational needs met. It now awaits the governor’s signature.

3) HR 8 – The House voted to create a Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity with 23 members. It will delve into the reasons, challenges, and solutions that target lower-income Alaskans. Rep. Tarr mentioned the discovery that many were using the ER for health issues simply because it was near a bus stop. $20 transportation vouchers helped solve the problem and save the state lots of money! The resolution to create a task force on poverty passes 34-6.



SENATE

The big deal in the Senate came with the PFD votes at the end of a mammoth session, but before we go there, I have to point out a few eye-rolling moments along the way.

CRITICAL RACE THEORY 😱

Amendment 3 to the budget had Sen. Lora Reinbold trying to insert intent language saying that public funds cannot be used to teach “divisive critical race theory in schools.” Once again, nobody really seems to understand what it means except that “critical race theory” has the word “race” in it and right wing media has latched on to it so now Republicans think it’s scary because racism doesn’t really exist except when you talk about it. 

To the rescue was Sen. Tom Begich (D-Anchorage) who stood to say he objected to Reinbold’s characterization, and saying that critical race theory is not taught in any K-12 system in America. He goes on to explain that the theory is discussed in academia to understand the intersection of race and the law, but that it’s generally used by the far right to stir the pot and whip up fear and racial animus. “It’s been grabbed on to by people attempting to create racial divide.” “It’s a thing taught in law school and grad schools to look at how we develop and create law.”

He gave two examples of how using critical race theory is/was in play in Alaska.

Prior to the federal fair housing act, South Addition, Airport Heights, Fairview, and Rogers Park (all in Anchorage) had strict covenants prohibiting Black and Native Alaskans from renting or buying homes in those neighborhoods. And some of these still exist on the books! “This is why we decided to pass the Fair Housing Act.” 

He also said that back in the 90s we found we were not ‘diverting’ Alaska Native kids enough. Diversion is when you commit a minor crime, the idea is to ‘divert’ you from entering the juvenile justice system where you might learn more about crime. Alaska Native kids were ending up in the system at 3 times the rate of others. They found out it was because judges were required to release a child to a parent. And in Alaska Native culture there were often caretakers who were not biological parents, but extended family members like aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents. “We rewrote the law based on that. That was the consequence from examining it throught critical race theory.” As a result, more non-violent offenders who were Alaska Native kids were included in diversion.

He said he didn’t believe Reinbold was trying to be divisive but urged a no vote.

Reinbold said she “doesn’t want to undo good work we’ve done, but I won’t push to a vote today. I will withdraw the amendment.” But then someone objected and they had to proceed. Here’s how it fell out. Rejected 11-9.


WE DON’T NEED NO STINKIN’ MONEY… APPARENTLY

Amendment 15, from Senator Wielechowski (D-Anchorage), said it’s the Legislature’s intent to extend the $300 federal weekly unemployment benefit through Sept. 4. He made a compelling case that we shouldn’t reject hundreds of millions in federal dollars that could be infused into local economies and spent at local businesses by people who really need it and FOR businesses that need it. 

Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson (D-Anchorage) implored the Senate to have empathy to those in real need and come together to make it happen. 

But the ol’ “those people just want to be lazy and stay home” trope was brought up by Lora Reinbold (who is also suddenly concerned about federal debt after never mentioning it for 4 years).

Jesse Kiehl (D-Juneau) talked about Southeast where there are no jobs, no cruise ships until maybe August, and fading hope. They need the assistance for groceries and gas. He pointed out that not all areas of the state are the same.

Wielechowski added that we have the lowest unemployment insurance in the country and we are an expensive state to live in. We’re talking $219 million in federal funds.

The amendment failed 10-10, with Bishop, Holland and Stevens joining the Democrats in voting yes. We needed only one more yes vote, so please note who voted no and turned away hundreds of millions of dollars in help. Yep, that’s Mia Costello (R-Anchorage) who didn’t want essential workers to get educational opportunities because if they have a chance to escape poverty-wage jobs – who will bag our groceries?

Sorry, Alaska. The Democrats tried.


PFD 

Welcome to the weirdly least partisan thing in the Senate – the PFD. It’s a free-for-all with both Democrats and Republicans on both sides of everything from a full statutory PFD, to a sort of measly one. 

Here’s how everyone fell out with the two options presented.

This amendment from Sen. Bill Wielechowski would have proposed a full $3400 PFD payment to all Alaskans. It failed on a 10-10 vote with 7 Republicans and 3 Democrats voting in favor.

Then Mike Shower (R-Wasilla) proposed a smaller PFD but much larger than anything discussed in the House – $2340, which used some of the PFD money to fund the budget. This one passed 12-8, picking up two more Democrats.

If you want to hear a clip from Sen. Wielechowski’s floor speech on why we’re in this position in the first place, and why our PFD (which is the most regressive tax according to UA’s Institute of Social and Economic Research) keeps getting cut CLICK HERE

[How’d that NO on 1 to Save the PFD work out?]

SPOILER: It has something to do with giving billions of dollars in tax credits to giant corporations instead of Alaskans. But you knew that already.

THE END IS JUST THE BEGINNING

No sooner had the regular session ended, than the next morning a new special session began. This begs the question, if there are ALWAYS special sessions are they really all that special?

Regardless, this one (the second one will be in August) deals with tying up the loose ends of the Operating and Mental Health budgets, the PFD, and constitutional amendments on the Permanent Fund, the PFD, and the Power Cost Equalization (PCE) program which provides economic assistance to communities and residents utilizing rural electric utilities where the cost of electricity can be three to five times higher than for customers in more urban areas of the state.

We’ll see how the House and Senate reconcile their different ideas on the PFD, and if they can wrap up before June 1. Otherwise, the dreaded annual tradition of pink slips to more than 14,000 state workers will rear its head yet again. Buckle up – the beginning of the end is in sight.

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