Early in the 1990’s Phil Hartman of Saturday Night Live fame played a character titled “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer”. The character was just as it sounds. A frozen alive caveman who is thawed thousands of years later and becomes a lawyer. He would play on the fact that he was a caveman to disarm his new contemporaries. “Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury. I’m just a caveman… Your world frightens and confuses me.” At the end of the skit Hartman’s character always won the case. Mike Shower, who was thrust into Juneau as Senator representing District E after Mike Dunleavy stepped down to focus on his campaign for Governor, took the same approach.
Five minutes after swearing into office Shower was sitting in an office with who he described as the four power players in the Senate, Senators Pete Kelly, Peter Micciche, Anna MacKinnon and Kevin Meyer. Shower said, “Cause that’s the deal right, they’re sitting with the new guy. They want to flush it out. At the first meeting you want to establish who’s the alpha male. I get it.” Shower stated he understood the game after 24 years of service as a fighter pilot. He had been to Washington. “Are you going to join the caucus?”, they asked. “What’s the caucus? I asked… you know I’m playing the dumb fighter pilot.” he said with a chuckle. “They explained to me here’s what you get. You get extra staff, better office, a seat at the table etc. etc.” But then he asked what’s the catch? The catch was he would have to vote for the budget. “What’s the budget going to be?” Shower inquired. “Well we don’t know yet?” was their reply.
Shower equated joining the caucus to signing a blank check and having someone else fill in the amount. Shower wasn’t sure if he could join the caucus. He didn’t feel he could come back to the Mat-Su Valley knowing the people he represented didn’t want a larger budget. He took a week and studied things came back on Monday and told the Senate leaders he wasn’t joining the caucus. “I told Senate President you know the budget’s going up. I don’t like where this is going. I don’t like being told how to vote. I’m not joining your caucus.” The leadership wasn’t happy with him. “The reality is after 24 years in uniform I fought for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and all those freedoms that we seem to care about so much. And to tell a legislator that’s working for the people in any form how they’re going to vote.” His voice began to raise. “Especially in exchange for something… office, staff, whatever doesn’t sit well with me.”
As Shower has worked through this hurdle and has done some research he discovered in a lot of states the exchange for these basic needs to commit to joining the caucus is not even allowed. “So, I’m not a fan of the binding caucus that has requirements. A caucus now I get that. That’s where groups join together to work together and help each other out. I’m fine with that. I would gladly join a Republican lead majority caucus. I’ve said that from the beginning.” “I’m not going to join something that’s going to trade something for something or forces a legislature to vote a certain way. I just don’t think that is right.”
Shower went on to say that he didn’t go to Juneau looking for a fight. “I was surprised that a lot of it became a fight.” He didn’t vote with the Republicans so in his mind it became a fight. “I saw certain issues like a Democrat might pull out SJR1 which was the 50/50 enshrinement of the PFD statutory formula into the constitution. I’m a fan of that, that’s what the people want. So I vote with them but procedurally the Republican caucus that’s not what they want because they were after SB26. That’s going to give more money to the government for spending but less for the people but also to prevent taxes so there’s all those complex things taking place so I would vote with the Democrats.” He said he would vote for what he thinks was right. “Well the republicans would get mad but then I voted with the Republicans if I thought the Democrats were wrong. There were a few times like in the supplemental budget I thought they all were out to lunch so I voted against everybody.”
For Shower what was the most eye opening was that he was fighting his own party perhaps more than he was fighting the other party.
I asked Shower if he believed there was a difference between the Mat-Su Republicans and the other Republicans throughout the state. “I think so, now not all Mat-Su Republicans are the same because there is harder core and there is less. What I would say is as I judge… that is I’m getting away from Republicans and Democrats in shades and going more towards where you would be on an ideological spectrum because that’s how you behave and what you support. Your conservative values and where you are on that scale and your progressive values and where you are on that scale is somewhere in the middle. So that’s what is so ironic. I’m a pretty far right guy, I believe in a smaller government. I believe in freedom at almost all cost but I also believe in the responsibility that comes with your personal freedom. At times I was jumping over with someone like Bill Wielechowski for example on rule 48 to move the crime repeal bill and SJR1 for 50/50 on the PFD and he’s a far left Democrat.”
Shower sees the pockets of conservatives and liberals around the state. He views Anchorage and Juneau as being more liberal with Delta Junction more like the Mat-Su and Fairbanks fairly conservative. “Now Talkeetna they joke around that that’s my hippie commune. They’re very liberal in that sense.” “With the Mat-Su being more of a conservative place so what you get is naturally more conservative people coming out and getting elected. So because by and large we think alike we tend to group together and work together and get a Mat-Su caucus.”
“There’s not only the ideology there’s the political pressure of the party. What does the caucus say? What do they want you to do? Certain politicians will do things that make you want to scratch your head and ask why did they do that? Oh because they’re promised a chairmanship. They want power. Gabrielle Ledoux is a good example of that. She works with the democratic caucus even though she’s a republican. Next thing you know she gets a committee chair. Oh okay, Copy. I see that’s what that was all about.”
Shower lost one staff member. He went from three to two. “We were shoved into a broom closet the three of us because we would of had to of had a bigger office if there was the other staffer. And what was really difficult was not having a seat behind closed doors.” Senator Hughes and Shower were not allowed in the room for strategy meetings. “So she and I had to talk on the outside and would have to guess what was happening.”
I asked Shower if he felt the Senate leadership gave into the Governor. “Yes, I do. But I want to be fair, I know they had a plan to reduce the budget by about $750 million. I know that they tried to do that. That was thwarted on several fronts… the House, the Governor, etc. The comments I heard from various members of the Senate was it’s just too hard. We’ve got the house against us, we’ve got the Governor against us. We’re just not going to get there.”
“My take on it was that they were battle weary, they were tired. Many of these legislatures have been there for a long time. They’re tired from battling the House and Governor for the last couple of years.”
“My instant response was then if your tired give up the ghost, go back home and do something else. Because I’m the new guy, I’m fresh, I’m ready to plant my flag in the ground and do battle. I would love to pay for all of the nice to haves along with the have to haves but at what cost.”
I put it this way to lobbyists and the college kids who came into my office. Let’s say you made $25,000 last year but you spent $45,000 this year then you made $25,000 again next year and you want to spend $50,000. Everyone knows you can’t sustain that and everyone will lose everything. The State can kick that can down the road. We have this great savings account called the permanent fund and we’re starting to draw that down. You know the CBR (Capital Budget Reserve) that was $17 billion dollars a few years ago, it’s now at $1.6 billion roughly right now. That shock absorber is gone. All I’m asking for is a flat line budget that doesn’t increase without taking money from something else. I’ll vote for that.”
“I’ll tell you something else that everybody there told me including economists. You could easily find $250 million in cuts. Cuts that are low hanging fruit in different departments and different programs. You take $250 million in cuts which is minimal out of $4.1 billion budget subtract $4.2 billion revenue from that.” For his revenue figure, Shower states that roughly $2.5 billion was from royalties and etc and it would have been $1.7 billion from 50% of the PFD earnings for a total $4.2 billion.
Look at where we would sit. We could start over again. Then if we could have that constitutional spending cap I would like to see. Then you go into the future with a known increase CPI adjusted for growth and inflation. And guess what open up the flood gates because everyone can plan. Alaska always does the wild spending swings so you’re just not sure. So how about some stability, talk about teachers getting pink slips, well what if you knew what the budget was going to be for the next year or three years or five years. We’ve got to get there so everyone can plan.”
“I’m frustrated that we are in deficit spending, we’ve increased our spending while in deficit spending. We’ve destroyed that CBR down to virtually nothing and now we are counting on oil again to get us through. I am scared to death that four years from now we have hosed ourselves because we did the HB331 bonding bill and four years from now TRS and PERS spending goes up dramatically and guess when those payments (Bonds) come due. We just added about half a billion dollars to our debt, and oil does its thing again because it’s cyclical. If we are not recovering the CBR and we get what we get from the stock market then what are we going to do. What are we going to do? Where would we find $2 billion in cuts? Without capital what are we going to do? Are we going to start drawing down the Permanent Fund because that’s all we’ve got left and we demand this much government. You know what happens when you start depleting your savings account. You’ve got nothing to fall back on. With oil going up to $70 a barrel I can see it already like those old cartoons where the dollar signs are in their eyes and start spinning. So I think, Oh boy here we go again they are going to want to start spending again.”