It's been nearly two months since I quit my last job – a great deal of which entailed covering the state legislature. It had been two months since I was perched at my office desk streaming gavel and firing off emails to legislators. As divided as our politics are, as lawmakers adopt the broken down car model that is Washington D.C., they were united back then in one refrain. Members of leadership from both caucuses in both chambers would assure me: “I'm absolutely confident we'll figure out the budget within the 90-day time limit.”
I always chuckled privately. Every reporter knew it was either feigned optimism or delusion. The writing was on the wall. Some seats changed and the House cobbled together a new center-left majority held together with bandaids and prayers, but the script hadn't.
As I passed Cheney Lake in East Anchorage, I noted how it was now day 152 of the 2017 legislative session. Day 62 passed that promised “come to Jesus” moment where ideology gave way to stability and, you know, responsibility. I passed a few real estate signs. Then more. Then a moving truck. Then a staggering collection of both spanning the entire Anchorage Bowl. One after another. Sometimes, clusters of “for sale” signs hung together at entryways to housing divisions.
This wasn't the normal summer population turnover, when people rush to sell their houses and cars and pack their bags before the termination dust begins appearing on the Chugach Mountains. The vacancy rate in Anchorage has ballooned from a low of 1.8 percent in 2010 to 5.1 percent this year. Statewide, those numbers are 3.9 percent and 7.3 percent, respectively. A big, bad change is happening.
The night before, the House had engaged in a marathon debate that should have required lining the floor with tanbark. Budget (lack of) negotiations and the fiscal crisis have perplexed both caucuses of both chambers. The crux of the logjam is fairly simple and hasn't changed much since Day One. The State faces a budget deficit in the neighborhood of $3 billion. Governor Bill Walker (I-Alaska) and the House Majority want to fix that – this year – by drawing $1.5 billion from the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve. Dividends would shrink to about $1,250. The remaining balance on the debt would be reduced fully through a mix of budget cuts and a 2.5 percent income tax projected to bring in between $650 and $700 million.
The Senate Majority, in GOP control since 2013, is adamantly against the income tax proposal. Their fiscal plan relies on a larger permanent fund draw, deeper cuts (including huge reductions to the University budget and the loss of over 700 public teachers statewide). But there would still be a budget gap, which they planned to address with future cuts in the ballpark of $450 million spread over the next two years. Virtually every instate economist has warned that this would deepen the recession and increase its length.
The House majority had dropped a bombshell amendment – 80 pages that rolled the capital budget and fiscal plan into one Frankenbill. The majority felt they had little choice, as it was the last day of the special session. The minority objected to being excluded from the process and wanted time to read the bill.
In Fairview, I rolled past more homes for sale. I saw another moving truck. I grunted to myself in frustration, remembering all the assurances I had been given, and knowing that the problem remains the income tax. Legislators spent 152 days talking past each other on that issue. It's not like they could not anticipate this the entire time in between this session and last, and every single one of the 152 days of the current ones. And on July 1, the government will shut down. It will come by way of, paraphrasing words said by another reporter years ago, the very people whose job is to make things less horrible.
Seeing announcements posted to Facebook by friends and acquaintances accepting new jobs out of state have become a daily exercise. As frequent as similar posts documenting concern and panic after being notified that their jobs were in jeopardy. Do they put the house on the market now? How are they going to make their mortgage payments? Where can they go for help? Where are their kids going to go to school in the Fall?
All because of an ideological pissing match that has lasted five months and counting.
The House minority is sore because they didn't have time to read the 80-page amendment to the bill and were locked out of the closed door meetings that hashed it out. One representative compared the bill's passage to Pearl Harbor. A senator in the majority compared the House majority's actions to the Jim Crow laws that maintained segregation in the first half of the 20th century. House leadership responded by rightly lambasting the irresponsible analogies and then wrongly dismissed their legitimate grievances – which they had lodged against previous GOP-led majorities. They justified their actions by noting how they had been on the wrong end of the cold shoulders in years past. Now it's their turn to inflict them. The Senate majority recognizes that so long as factions in the House are at each other’s throats, they can keep playing chicken until they get their way. The amended bill that passed last week was a lot closer to the Senate's proposals, yet it was dead on arrival.
Each side sidestepped their responsibilities and adopted a devolving course of action. Partisan politics has become a strategy of finding ways to blame someone else and then putting all the manufactured fear, confusion, and anger on their shoulders. With only two political parties, that's a really easy game to play (independents caucus with the House majority, so they get lumped in with the “turncoat” Republicans and – poof! – they're Democrats now). All of a sudden, no one has to grapple with the complexities and nuances of budgets and fiscal plans. You have a finger. Point it.
Fire up the internet machine and go to just about any article covering the legislature to see if the approach is finding a foothold. Skip to the comments (most people do anyway). Do you see a reasoned, thought-out debate about what fiscal restraints need to be enacted, where and how revenues can be found, and how we get from here to somewhere not falling off several cliffs into a pit of sharks? Or, do you see people opening with “Democrats are communists” and “Republicans are fascists?” A comment or two later, you'll hit the basement: “You're an idiot.”
Offramp politics are easy and attractive. That's why they're so effective – and why our institutions are failing at roughly the same rate as our faith in them. You can't drain the swamp when most House and Senate districts are safe and, even if someone does something beyond reproach – like slap a reporter – the electorate will still side with them because, ultimately, it's a binary choice between good and evil.
There's a way out of this, but yelling at each other for benign reasons that benefit legislative inaction isn't it. We have to pull together, buck natural tendencies, and shift away from the culture of knee-jerk, manufactured blame. But the chances of that are about as good as Sen. Pete Kelly biting on an income tax.
Meanwhile, the signs keep going up and the trucks keep getting filled.
The future is not looking good.