Dennis Anderson

It’s been a crazy time in Alaska to be in the media business. Between the unfortunate fires and the dysfunctional legislative sessions there hasn’t been a slow news day. While there is effort to control the fires there seems to be little effort to control the dysfunctionality of the current political climate.

How’s that conversation going?

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, after releasing his initial budget, began distributing his ‘Honest conversation campaign’. And now after the governor’s vetoes to the legislative budget agreement a total of $671 million has been slashed. A total of $280 million was cut by the legislators and $391 million by governor’s red pen. The conversation is now a shouting match.

Services versus PFD

It’s that simple. And those who are on each side of the issue are growing more frustrated by the day that there is not a resolution. The longer this budget sits out there unresolved the more upset each side will become. The cutting of $130,253,100 from the University of Alaska budget seems to have fired up the opposition crowd and is drawing national media attention. Headlines such as the New York Times “Blindsided by a Devastating Veto, Alaska’s University System Pleads for a Lifeline”

Blindsided? Everyone who has been paying attention, including University President Jim Johnsen, saw this coming. Dunleavy wasn’t shy on the campaign trail about an overhaul of the university system. In February at the Common Wealth North luncheon, Johnsen was asked what he could sell if the governor’s proposed budget passes to offset the cut to his budget.

“We can certainly step up selling intellectual property and that sort of thing. We can sell relevance of our educational programs. We need to come up with more programs that are more exciting in terms of that capital institute, drones, and all sorts of cool stuff. I think our young people want to see programs like e-gaming and it’s got some legs right now. We can sell some land,” Johnsen said.

He lost me at e-gaming.

As the conversation concerning the budget vetoes unfolds on social media both sides get hung up semantics. “The governor cut 41 percent of the University funding!” one side will argue. While the other side counters with, “No he didn’t he only cut 17 percent of their budget!”. Pay attention here, the governor cut 41 percent of the state funding to U of A which equates to 17 percent of their budget. You can slice that pie by percentage any way you want to but a $130 million cut is no small amount. Johnson has his work cut out for him and that work needs to include more than furloughs and e-gaming courses.

The sessions in Wasilla and Juneau

This week’s split session between Wasilla and Juneau sums up the dysfunction in a nutshell.

First of all, the governor had to know that the majority of legislators were not coming to Wasilla from the beginning. ‘Hey guys let’s play this game on my home turf.’ That wasn’t going to happen. The Mat-Su Valley can hang their collective hats on the fact that they elected this governor. The majority of the voters in the Mat-Su stand behind him and want these cuts and more. Realistically speaking why would any legislator come to the Valley and listen to the home crowd boo them. But a split legislative session plays into the governor’s red ink stained hands because of the impossibility of a getting a 75 percent vote to overturn his vetoes.

Mayor Cottle and the session

A video has surfaced — well not surfaced but widely distributed — showing Wasilla Mayor Bert Cottle grabbing the arm of Haliehana Stepetin during what is being described as a sit-in. Stepetin emailed the video and photos of the incident. Bizarrely enough Stepetin writes a press release and quotes herself about the incident. The video shows about 15 to 20 people going past the marked off area where the legislators were to sit. The area was also clearly marked with nametags. Cottle begins to move from the side of the room towards the middle. Stepetin is going through the barrier set up and Cottle reaches behind her and grabs her arm. Words were exchanged. It’s hard to see on the video if Stepetin broke away or the mayor released her arm.

Stepetin in her press release states that the mayor assaulted her. When I spoke to the mayor he stated he didn’t assault anyone. He acknowledged he grabbed her arm. He states he was merely trying to stop her from going where she wasn’t suppose to go, and once she tried to pull away he let go.

Merriam-Webster defines assault as, “a threat to inflict offensive physical contact or bodily harm on a person that puts the person in immediate danger of or in apprehension of such harm or contact.”

Well assault is apparently a very subjective term. The bottom line is Stepetin shouldn’t have crossed the barriers and the mayor should not have grabbed her. Two wrongs do not make a right. You can watch the video on and judge for yourself.

Mayor Cottle expressed his disappointment how the whole legislative sessions have played out. After hearing legislators complain that there would be nowhere to stay in Juneau because of the tourist season, he reached out to the governor’s office and invited him to have a session in Wasilla. He suggested Wasilla Middle School. A few days later he received word from the governor’s office that the session would in fact be in Wasilla and at the middle school.

The mayor’s hope was that the residents of the second most populated borough in the state would get to witness the legislators in action. It would be cool to see he surmised. Wednesday’s protests leads him to believe that Wasilla will never get another session. He’s both frustrated and disappointed. I would classify the incident with Stepetin as out of character for him, but avoidable and a bit overblown.

Who’s right and who’s wrong on the session location?

State of Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson states that the governor has the legal right to hold a special session wherever he chooses while the Alaska State Legislative leaders say not so fast. I don’t know who to believe but Clarkson has lost some credibility with me personally. First he serves at the pleasure of the governor. Most states elect their attorney general. The attorney general has a higher purpose of protecting the citizens of the state and their interests.

Clarkson lost me when the governor, some cabinet members including Clarkson and other staff came to the Frontiersman office for an interview. Our editorial staff was scheduled to interview the governor. I was not present but called into the interview. According to the editorial staff that was in the room, Clarkson became visibly frustrated with the questions I was asking the governor including, is his budget aimed to depopulate the state? A fair question I thought. The governor was very gracious and didn’t hide from any of the questions. I find Clarkson’s behavior that day as very odd. I wonder if he’s capable of being impartial in his findings of constitutional law when it comes to his boss.

Walking away from free money

In recent interview with U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan I asked him his thoughts on the governor’s budget. He quickly stated he doesn’t offer opinions on local government. But then he pivoted.

“Here’s what I will say, I think we’re clearly coming out of our recession. Where I have weighed in with the governor and with key legislators is. When people are looking where at spending and where they should be prioritizing. I say to them make sure you look and understand well the federal match system. It turbo charges State spending and you do not want to forgo state spending that can get you a lot more federal money. Most obvious is federal highways,” Sullivan stated.

He went on to say that the state has close to a billion dollars in federal money for highways. His example is if the state spends $70 million on federal highways then it receives $700 million in federal money because it’s a 90-10 match.

“My view, take the deal. That is not rocket science,” Sullivan stated.

Where it becomes a little tricky is education and higher education is a 50-50 match. Sullivan said he still thinks they should take the deal. When I pressed him on Medicaid and the fact that the governor is looking at turning away federal money in the future. Sullivan stated that is a match too. But he said he would need to look more into what the governor was doing before weighing in with an opinion.

Let’s all hope that dysfunction junction comes to an end soon.

Dennis Anderson is a Group Publisher for Wick Communications Alaska, Colorado.

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