OPINION: Legislature has a bigger problem than Johnston

  • State Republican Reps. Jennifer Johnston, left, and Chuck Kopp, both of Anchorage, talk before the start of the Alaska legislative session on Jan. 16, 2018, at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. (Photo/Mark Thiessen/AP)

There is something rotten in Juneau.

In the days since it was reported here that House Finance Co-Chair Jennifer Johnston of Anchorage justified the decision to deny an early Permanent Fund dividend based on the belief the money would cause trouble in the villages, one question stands over all: Just how widespread is her attitude in the Legislature and in particular among the leadership?

The casual nature of Johnston’s claim about rural Alaskans is evidence of her comfort with expressing such a view as well an apparent lack of receiving negative feedback for saying it openly, at least until now.

Minority Leader and fellow Anchorage Republican Lance Pruitt called in to the Mike Porcaro Show on April 7 to discuss that day’s vetoes announced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, and he also weighed in on whether he’d heard Johnston or other members say the same thing.

Pruitt said he “was not surprised” to see Johnston’s opinion.

“Oh yeah, I heard it from that member multiple times,” Pruitt said. “I heard at one point in time, in a meeting, that someone said ‘this is more money than these people have ever seen in their lives.’

Pruitt said he refrained from going public with that knowledge before because he didn’t think he’d be taken seriously.

“If it was just me saying it, people would say, ‘oh, he’s in the minority and just trying to cast aspersions,’” he said. “Now you’re hearing exactly what we were hearing.”

Sen. Shelley Hughes of Palmer backed up Pruitt in an April 9 call to Porcaro and agreed with him that Johnston's belief the PFD does more harm than good in the villages is not an uncommon one.

Without denying anything I reported she said after she called me on April 1, Johnston apologized on her official Facebook page for her comments. She wrote that the comments don’t reflect her “values and beliefs” and claimed she has a “deep love and respect for our Alaska Native community.”

“This is a learning process,” she posted. “In the future I will be educating myself and will do a better job communicating my respect for all Alaskans.”

Left without apologies from Johnston were the members of the congressional delegation that she threw under the bus to me by falsely claiming they shared her offensive views, or the state employees she stated don’t need an early PFD either.

House Majority spokesperson Austin Baird ignored my request for comment on April 9 — as did Senate Majority spokesperson Daniel McDonald — although Baird did choose to respond to KTUU and the Anchorage Daily News with a tepid statement from Speaker Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham.

“As the first House Speaker of Alaska Native heritage, someone who was born and raised in rural Alaska, I can assure you that Representative Johnston’s comments are not in line with our caucus values,” Edgmon said. “But she’s always been a strong supporter of issues important to rural Alaska and to our state’s first people. I don’t for a moment think her comments were meant to be harmful in the way they were portrayed to be.

“She has since acknowledged the mistake and issued a public apology, and she has reached out to leaders in the Alaska Native community to express her great remorse."

If you read that statement closely, you’ll find that Edgmon spent more words defending Johnston than he did defending the constituents she insulted or defending the positive impacts of the PFD in rural Alaska where the cost of living is astronomical. Other than mentioning his own heritage, Edgmon didn’t defend Alaska Natives at all.

Maybe that’s because, as he said, he thinks the way her comments “were portrayed to be” was worse than what she actually said.

Contrast that with fellow Democrat Rep. Chris Tuck of Anchorage, who offered no qualifications in his condemnation of Johnston’s comments posted to his official Facebook page.

“I have to disassociate myself from the comments made in the following editorial,” Tuck wrote in his post above the Journal link. “These comments are disparaging to many of our fellow Alaskans and do not reflect the views of the House Majority.

“We are all in this together, and I do not want this type of thinking to tear Alaskans apart. I am especially disappointed in the false characterization of how Permanent Fund Dividends are used by people in rural Alaska.

“Like many of you, I have lived in rural Alaska and have family and friends in rural Alaska, which means we know first-hand how vital the real money represented by the PFD is to the survival of so many Alaskans. This real money would be especially helpful during these tough economic times when so many businesses are closed, and hardworking Alaskans are unemployed.

“Many people, myself included, believe an early dividend would be very helpful.”

There is less distance between Anchorage and Dillingham than there is between Tuck’s statement and Edgmon’s.

Sen. Donny Olson of Golovin, who called me after I requested comment from the Senate Minority, expressed appreciation for Johnston’s support of other programs that benefit rural Alaska such as Power Cost Equalization but also noted that she was turning a “blind eye” toward the fact that a few people not spending their PFD wisely is a statewide problem, not one confined to villages.

He, like Tuck, also said he supports an early dividend and, unlike Edgmon, noted the benefits it provides to his constituents for things like getting their boats and nets ready for fishing season.

Lest anyone think this is a partisan issue for me, or that this is about the size of the dividend, I endorsed the 5 percent draw on the Permanent Fund and a $1,000 PFD back in June 2016.

I’ve been consistent on that position since, unlike some politicians such as Senate President Cathy Giessel, who voted for the $1,000 dividend under Senate Bill 128 in 2016. She then ran for reelection demagoging former Gov. Bill Walker for his veto setting the PFD at the amount she had just voted for and supporting then-Sen. Dunleavy’s plan to pay it back.

In fact, after Walker’s 2016 veto I did not blame him, but put the responsibility for the vetoes of the dividend and oil tax credits on members of both parties in both houses of the Legislature for failing to enact the draw and adjusting the PFD to reflect the reality of a $4 billion deficit.

I’ve spent hundreds of column inches criticizing Sen. Bill Wielechowski over his stance on oil taxes, but I also endorsed his lawsuit challenging Walker’s veto as a public service to resolve the separation of powers question.

Some may remember the column I wrote last summer blasting Dunleavy, former Chief of Staff Tuckerman Babcock and the House Minority for the chaos surrounding the state budget and the dividend. Babcock was replaced a week later by Ben Stevens.

This is not about partisanship or the PFD.

This is about public policy being set based on arrogance and the worst of racial stereotypes that appear to be commonly held by far too many members of the Legislature when reading the House Speaker’s qualified criticism of Johnston for sharing them.

This is about tens of thousands of Alaskans being forced to struggle with the state unemployment system, the Small Business Administration website and the loan process for the Paycheck Protection Program while waiting on relief checks from the IRS.

The Legislature had an opportunity to provide a measure of peace of mind to anxious Alaskans through an existing infrastructure that wouldn’t have required anyone to lift a finger beyond what nearly everyone had already done by the time the budget was passed on March 29, which was apply for the PFD.

But it turns out that the leadership is more intent on denying anything that may be favored by the governor, more committed to telling Alaskans in the villages and elsewhere that they know best, and more determined to establish who is the boss than to do what is right.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
04/13/2020 - 12:56pm