OPINION: The education of Bryce Edgmon

  • From left to right are Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, Senate President Cathy Giessel, Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s Chief of Staff Ben Stevens and moderator Willis Lyford during a legislative preview panel at the Alaska Chamber’s annual Fall Forum on Oct. 29 in Girdwood at the Alyeska Resort. (Photo/Andrew Jensen/AJOC)

Alaska Chamber President Kati Capozzi’s phone started blowing up as Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon delivered his closing remarks on Oct. 29 at the organization’s annual Fall Forum in Girdwood.

Edgmon took part in an hour-long preview of the 2020 legislative session alongside Senate President Cathy Giessel and Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s Chief of Staff Ben Stevens that was alternately awkward, encouraging and surreal.

Awkward was moderator Willis Lyford starting the panel by playing a clip from the climax of “The Perfect Storm” when the Andrea Gail flips and wrecks killing everyone on board; encouraging was all agreeing a serious look at a spending cap is forthcoming and the legislative leaders praising Stevens for opening lines of communication to the governor; surreal was Giessel calling her newly cultivated relationships with Democrats Edgmon and Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich her best achievements of the session.

All in all it was an enlightening look behind the curtain of a dysfunctional, drawn-out session in the first year of the Dunleavy administration marked by massive failures to communicate and political combat unlike anything ever seen in Alaska history.

But what set Capozzi’s phone buzzing was Edgmon’s attack on the Chamber’s response to Dunleavy’s initial budget released Feb. 13 that attempted to close the $1.2 billion budget deficit with huge spending cuts and local tax transfers to the state while paying out an estimated $3,000 Permanent Fund dividend according to the statutory formula.

“I don’t know if it was too long afterwards that I had members of your organization in my office, you know, sort of championing all these budget cuts,” Edgmon said. “And I said, 'Well, do you have a clue what this budget even contains?’ And I said give me some details. What about the $500 million in transferred to local governments? The doing away of raw fish tax revenues $28 million? Something that would be a third of Unalaska’s annual budget and big chunk of what Petersburg gets and so forth; 41 percent cut to the university; 23 percent cut to K-12. Do you support that?

“‘Oh yeah, our organization, we support that.’ Well, I’ll tell you this and I don’t mean this in any sort of a derogatory way, but my ask of you as an organization would be please carefully evaluate those priorities coming forward.”

It is uncertain which members Edgmon was referring to. The Chamber conducts an annual Legislative Fly-In to Juneau and more than 80 members made the trek this year, but that event was Jan. 30-31, or two weeks before Dunleavy’s budget rolled out.

The day the budget was released, the Chamber did issue a statement with the following headline: “Alaska Chamber agrees that it’s time for Alaska to live within its means.”

The opening paragraph read as follows: “The Alaska Chamber applauds Governor Dunleavy for proposing a spending plan that matches current revenues. This action will surely prompt necessary and critical conversations that must occur across Alaska in order to achieve a durable and sustainable fiscal plan.”

Next was a quote from former Chamber Vice President Albert Fogle, who was briefly with the group: “For many years, the Chamber has advocated that state government reduce its spending to sustainable levels. The Chamber also supports a meaningful spending cap on operating budget expenditures. Achieving a durable and sustainable fiscal plan that includes a spending cap will strengthen our economy and help Alaskan families by reducing uncertainty and promoting private sector investment. We encourage the Alaska Legislature, local communities, organizations, and all Alaskans to get involved and work together to solve the fiscal challenges plaguing our state.”

Nothing in the headline, opening paragraph or Fogle’s quote supports any particular budget cut or comes close to approaching the way Edgmon characterized the Chamber’s position. The release goes on to note the Chamber’s long-standing legislative priority of a sustainable fiscal plan and a cap on operating expenditures that goes back for decades.

(Full disclosure: I was also a guest of the Chamber at the forum and moderated a panel discussion that morning between economists Ed King and Mouhcine Guettabi.)

Nevertheless, the hysteria over Dunleavy’s budget and the apparent inability of many to read past the word “applaud” in the opening paragraph made damage control the first order of business for Capozzi, who was hired as the Chamber president six weeks later in March and spent the next few months explaining the group’s position to its members, the media and the Legislature.

Apparently that nuance never got back to Edgmon.

“You know, I talked to some of your members who said ‘we had no idea our organization took that position,’” he went on. “But you did.”

It got worse.

“My ask of you as an organization, not only to you know, respectfully be more informed and sort of collectively in tune to what I think the public at large wants, but my ask would be that you do what you can to help us pivot because we need help,” he said.

As you may imagine, Edgmon admonishing more than 100 of the most engaged and educated stakeholders in Alaska to “be more informed” while simultaneously distorting their collective position did not go over well.

Immediately after the panel stepped down, Capozzi returned to the podium and firmly corrected Edgmon for stating “misinformation” about the Chamber’s position and told him that she and its members are always available to communicate with him if he needs further clarification.

The Chamber’s legislative priorities are voted on every fall at the forum, and a sustainable fiscal plan as the top goal dates back years.

Just consider the group’s press release in 2015 after former Gov. Bill Walker hosted a fiscal summit in Fairbanks that included a host of his proposals to cut spending, raise industry taxes, institute a personal income tax and cap the PFD.

Here’s the headline: “Business community applauds Governor’s focus on fiscal sustainability, calls for solutions that reduce spending, keep the economy moving.”

There’s that word “applauds” again.

Here’s the opening paragraph: “Members of the Alaska business community today thanked Governor Bill Walker for taking initial steps toward putting the state on solid financial footing by asking Alaskans to take a hard look at government spending, as well as potential revenue enhancements.”

Why, it’s almost as if the Chamber will encourage, thank, or even “applaud” any governor who is willing to put forth a plan that aligns with its own long-held priority of sustainable spending even when that plan includes tax increases.

Edgmon should have known that already, but hopefully he does now.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].

10/30/2019 - 1:36pm