Andrew Jensen

OPINION: Berkowitz inspires a revolution he can’t embrace

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz isn’t a big fan of Van Hale right now. Safe to say Hale is no fan of Berkowitz, either. On Aug. 3, the day that the mayor once again shut down bars and restaurants, Hale’s trademark sign outside Van’s Dive Bar on Fifth Avenue had a message: “Berkowitz is a Dick Tator “Hell yeah, brother!” Berkowitz’s heavy-handed decision to deal a potential death blow to scores of small businesses across Anchorage sparked a resistance and the first real civil disobedience from otherwise law-abiding folks who have largely gone along with the mayor’s mandates. A crowd of people well in excess of his arbitrary limit on gatherings of no more than 50 people popped up to protest on Aug. 3 at the Loussac Library where the Assembly meets to regularly rubber stamp the mayor’s actions. Kriner’s Diner did not close and defied a stop work order delivered by municipal employees on Aug. 4. A bartender at Jens’ Restaurant started a petition opposing the shutdown that was rapidly nearing 4,000 signatures out of a goal of 5,000 as of midday on Aug. 4. Not only did Berkowitz decide to shut down bars and restaurants on July 31, he did so without even a proposal for a relief plan despite the municipality having received more than $150 million in CARES Act funds four months ago. While the state has had its own issues with its business relief grant program thanks to the rushed nature of its approval at a time when the Paycheck Protection Program had run out of money, the municipality is not encumbered in any way to provide help to the businesses ordered closed by the mayor. Here is the guidance for eligible uses to distribute the millions of dollars now in possession of the mayor and his merry bunch of marionettes on the Assembly: “Expenditures incurred to respond to second-order effects of the emergency, such as by providing economic support to those suffering from employment or business interruptions due to COVID-19-related business closures.” And: “Expenditures related to the provision of grants to small businesses to reimburse the costs of business interruption caused by required closures.” That is about as clearcut as it gets. In his typical buck-passing fashion that he regularly exhibits when it comes to the humanitarian crisis of homelessness that has exploded on his watch, Berkowitz is pointing his finger at the state and federal government rather than admit he has come up with no plan to aid the businesses he is closing down. While the governor may well need to call the Legislature to a special session to amend the state relief program, he is not the one who is shuttering businesses across the state. Berkowitz has stamped his feet repeatedly asserting his local superiority to go further than state mandates, yet when it comes to mitigating the consequences of his power grabs he tries to blame others. Nor has anyone on the Assembly proposed a plan to use the $150 million to aid small businesses as the lame duck mayor cripples them. While the mayor and his allies dither over virtual town halls to talk about plans, and after they wasted weeks with the only plan they have come up with to spend $22.5 million of the CARES Act funds on shelter and treatment facilities, paychecks are running out and rents are coming due. Berkowitz didn’t wake up on July 31 and decide to shut down a huge swath of the Anchorage economy. He had months to craft a relief plan and has done nothing except come up with a legally questionable use of CARES money to address a problem that entirely predates the pandemic. Here’s the federal guidance for using CARES funds on homeless services: “Expenses for care for homeless populations provided to mitigate COVID-19 effects and enable compliance with COVID-19 public health precautions.” That would mean the temporary shelters at the Sullivan and Ben Boeke areas are well within a proper use of the funds. Buying four properties to deal with issues the mayor and Assembly have neglected for years hardly seems to qualify, yet this administration is plowing ahead with it while leaving small business owners to suck it up. The mayor certainly had no such concerns about large gatherings or risks of transmission when he attended a June 6 protest of more than 1,000 people at the Park Strip and praised everyone in attendance. “I look out and I see a crowd full of revolutionaries, and it makes my heart glad because more than 200 years ago this country was founded on a revolutionary idea that all would be created equal and treated equally. “If you want change, you have to change the future.” Judging by the early response to the mayor’s decision to not treat everyone equally, a growing number in Anchorage are willing to take him up on his challenge. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

OPINION: Anchorage officials want carrots, public gives them the stick

Don’t get a tattoo. Wear your mask. Don’t go out (especially after midnight). Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz has eagerly accepted the mantle of parent-in-chief and admitted as much to KTUU in a July 1 interview after he announced his municipal mask mandate on June 26. “Nobody likes eating vegetables either,” he said, “but sometimes you have to be told to do the right thing because it’s the right thing.” Notwithstanding how the vendors of the weekly Anchorage farmers’ markets may feel about the mayor knocking their products with his glib take, what we have learned since lockdown and hunker down orders started being issued in March is that law-abiding people are quite easy to boss around. Business owners will shut down at the risk of losing their livelihoods rather than risk losing their licenses. Shoppers will don a mask in order to make their Costco run. Students will forgo once-in-a-lifetime graduation experiences. Families will give up funerals, weddings and church services. In short, we’ll eat our damn vegetables. But when it comes to the people in Anchorage who most need help, who desperately need to be told to do the right thing, the mayor has been quite unwilling to even suggest a switch from a sugar-based diet to sprouts and salads. While the coronavirus is concerning, homelessness has become a full-blown humanitarian crisis under this mayor’s watch. Berkowitz can attempt to deflect blame as much as he likes to the federal government, the pesky ACLU or the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but the heartbreaking scenes of daily life in Anchorage are on him and his supermajority of allies on the Assembly. The mayor is closing out his six years in office with an attempt to convert $22.5 million worth of CARES cash into campuses he claims will curb the rampant problems of vagrancy, larceny, loitering, littering and public intoxication that are plaguing the municipality. Before moving on, lest this skepticism be interpreted as callous, or worse, racist, Anchorage does need infrastructure to care for those who cannot care for themselves. Although the locations can be debated, and the NIMBY impulse will always run strong, we need additional space for addiction and mental health treatment, as well as temporary and transitional housing for those who need a hand up and not a handout. However, this mayor and the majority of this Assembly have earned absolutely zero confidence they can be trusted to execute a successful strategy even were they able to bypass the Planning and Zoning Commission or avoid a federal audit for using economic aid funds to fix their failures that were the norm long before the new normal. Meet the new normal, same as the old normal. Nobody should believe anything will get better if the mayor gets his way. Not after more than five years of essentially unchecked authority in Anchorage until five days of overwhelming opposition that proved the public has well and truly had enough. If the rest of us can be forced to stay home, stay closed or stay covered for our own good, then surely the same logic applies to those who have long lost track of what is good for them whether from mental trauma or hopeless addiction. Until a plan includes enforcing the law, we will never identify and separate those who need help, those who want help and those who just want to help themselves to whatever isn’t nailed down. Mental health care is a huge challenge and we can look no further than the disaster at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute for evidence. Mandatory in-patient addiction treatment for chronic violators will likely require statutory changes at either the state or local level. Securing neighborhoods where treatment facilities are sited will require resources, but if bars ever get to resume normal business we have an alcohol tax for that. Those are major obstacles to overcome, and the mayor has squandered five-plus years to clear them, but doing so is critical to receive public support. Eating your vegetables can’t all be carrots. The mayor and the Assembly are going to keep getting the stick until they figure that out. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

OPINION: The Mayor’s required reading

On the eve of the Fourth of July, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz urged people to read the Declaration of Independence. Unlike a lot of what he tells me to do, like not be out after midnight, I looked forward to it. I always enjoy reading the Declaration of Independence. Unlike the Constitution, which is more of an eat-your-peas documentary, the Declaration is the classic summer popcorn feature arc of three acts that grabs you from the beginning and closes with a flourish. It is the freaking “Die Hard” of calligraphy and cursive on parchment. Many people quote their go-to passages as “all men are created equal” or “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” My favorite is this: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” In his encouragement to read the nation’s founding declaration, Berkowitz remarked that it is a “pretty radical” document. Indeed it is, which makes one wonder if he has ever actually read it. And you know what you tell anybody who hasn’t seen “Die Hard.” They have to do it. Hours later, after using the president of the state’s hospitality industry as a hapless prop in his press conference where he paid lip service to the principles of our founding, the Berkowitz administration dropped a list of establishments from Palmer to Seward where people who have tested positive for the ‘rona have visited in a naked attempt to kill their business before a traditional weekend of celebration. His administration declared the municipality’s health capacity was at a “red light” — not for lack of nearly 1,000 hospital beds nor just one person in the state on a ventilator — but for lack of contact tracing. Berkowitz claimed that his contact tracers were so taxed and so vexed that the only way to alert the public after being unable to ID every individual who may have talked to a positive case was to burn 17 businesses and cast a cloud on every other similar operation. The move worked and owners reported their weekend traffic was off dramatically. Which brings us back to the the mayor’s reading assignment: “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.” Good luck getting people to cooperate with contact tracers now. Anyway, Berkowitz has this authority to do whatever he wants because the absentee Assembly that Anchorage voted for with stamps won’t even rubber stamp his decisions and is too gutless to go on the record either supporting or opposing whatever the heck this lame duck does. That’s what Anchorage voted for, so we get what we deserve. Gov. Standing Tall isn’t coming to pick a fight over Mayor Dad’s overreach or the Assembly’s lack of oversight. That recalls another part of the Declaration about the executive conspiring with a complacent and complicit legislative body: “He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation.” Emergency powers and pulling agenda items without voting gives the mayor more leeway than a rubber duck in the Chena River. Berkowitz has backed off a little bit, with his administration pulling all but three businesses off the list as of July 7 — for now — and stating he doesn’t want to close down the bars and restaurants he just kicked in their sensitive areas. Whether somebody reminded him he wants to collect taxes from Long Island ice teas come Jan. 1 or that he may need some votes from his traditional supporters in Anchorage when he wants to run for governor, the fact he’s giving these businesses a reprieve isn’t exactly worthy of applause. Now to the Act 3 flourish: “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Overcapitalization aside, Jefferson had a point, but I don’t expect Mayor Dad to give me any for the irony when I turn in this homework. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

OPINION: Karen vs. Karen

Whether you are pro-mask or anti-mask, I really can’t stand you right now. The online crusade of keyboard Karens on both sides of the dumbest debate since tastes great versus less filling is doing real damage to business owners caught in the crossfire of a battle they didn’t choose and are desperately trying to avoid as they struggle to survive a threat to their livelihoods that is far greater than the one between the armchair epidemiologists duking it out on dueling social media groups. Let’s just settle this right now. If you get online to brag about not wearing a mask, you’re a Karen. If you get online to brag about wearing a mask, you’re a Karen. If you get online to snitch on a business for asking you to wear a mask, you’re a Karen. If you get online to snitch on a business if someone isn’t wearing a mask, you’re a Karen. If you harass people for wearing or not wearing a mask … well, you should get it by now. Stop being Karens. Mind your own business, and for goodness’ sake stop trying to hurt businesses. Because whether you are pro-mask or anti-mask, the thing many if not most of these Karens have in common is nothing at risk. It costs them nothing to fire off a Facebook post telling people to boycott a business. It costs them nothing to claim how awesome they are for resisting or for complying. At a time when literally every customer counts for the small business owners who make up the vast majority of the job creators in this state, your Karening can cost plenty. We can agree that wearing masks is inconvenient for most of us, but some are making up for it generating a dopamine response by telling everyone what they think about it. We have enough to worry about without a bunch of self-deputized TSA agents running around getting into people’s health conditions or whipping out their pocket constitution looking for the amendment that says “thou shall not order me to wear a mask.” If something at a business upsets you and you just have to say something, go half-Karen and talk to a manager. There’s no need to grab your phone and tell the world about it. Never go full Karen. Think about whether your fears or your feelings are driving your actions, and if they are, either adjust your behavior accordingly or adjust your attitude. Because you’re not helping. You’re making this worse, and you’re tearing our community apart. In a polarized world it may be hard to accept that two things can be true at the same time: the virus can reach a vulnerable member of the population if people aren’t careful and ceding any amount of personal freedom to the government is an inch it will routinely turn into a mile. If it helps to relieve the justifiable personal stress of months of pandemic panic that’s been foisted upon us, there is no riper target than the federal government health experts like Surgeon General Jerome Adams or the lovable Dr. Fauci who have admitted they lied to us at the onset about wearing masks. The answer, however, is not to compound the government’s squandering of the public trust through its dishonesty over masks by turning on each other or turning each other in through Facebook groups or [email protected] Don’t be a Karen. In the interest of gender equity, don’t be a Dick, either. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

OPINION: Redlining the Arctic

The biggest bank in Alaska is redlining its biggest employer. At just more than $6 billion as of June 30, 2019, Wells Fargo holds more deposits in Alaska than every other bank combined with 51 percent of the market share according to the most recent Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data. That is just a tiny fraction of the San Francisco-based bank’s more than $1.2 trillion in deposits nationwide, which is probably why the company’s board of directors cares not a whit about its policy of refusing to finance oil and gas projects on Alaska’s North Slope. Along with Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley — who have also announced they will not finance oil and gas projects in the state — perhaps they should be made to care. Rather than gerrymandered borders of neighborhoods drawn in the past to exclude entire populations of disadvantaged people from credit services, these mega banks that were all bailed out by the federal government after the 2008 financial crash have taken advantage of the existing line at 66 degrees North otherwise known as the Arctic Circle. Above this line are thousands of Alaska’s first people that the United States government made a deal with in 1971 through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to exchange millions of acres of land in order to facilitate construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. That contract guaranteeing Alaska Natives the rights of economic opportunity and self-determination is in jeopardy from these federally-backed banks that are pandering to Green New Dealers with a redlining policy that harkens back to the original New Deal of 1933. Alaska’s congressional delegation is therefore on to something with its recent letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, Comptroller of the Currency Brian Brooks and FDIC Chair Jelena McWilliams that calls out these banks’ anti-Arctic policy for what it is: discrimination against Alaska Natives. That is no stretch. These banks are declaring they will help deny billions of dollars in potential royalties to Alaska Natives from the National Petroleum Reserve and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain that are both explicitly designated by Congress for development, as well as the state lands from which shareholders in Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and the village of Nuiqsuit would benefit. Doyon Drilling, a subsidiary of the Interior Native regional corporation, works extensively on the North Slope and was forced to lay off more than 300 employees as ConocoPhillips shut down exploration amid the pandemic and then curbed production by some 100,000 barrels per day as prices briefly turned negative. As of December 2019, Doyon shareholders numbered 226 at Doyon Drilling and earned $21 million in wages last year. The Green New Dealers may believe they are only screwing with evil big oil companies, but stopping Arctic projects by turning off financing spigots will disproportionately hurt companies like Doyon that are led from top to bottom by its Native shareholders. More broadly, these banks’ discriminatory policies hurt all Alaska Natives that would receive revenue sharing from North Slope development and the state as a whole that relies on oil revenue to pay for health care and education. Quite simply, banks that are still in existence today thanks to the extraordinary rescue measures taken 12 years ago and who are now borrowing from the Fed at essentially 0 percent should not be allowed to discriminate against any group of people, let alone an entire state or industry. Wells Fargo and its too-big-to-fail cohort are literally anti-Alaska. To be clear, this is not a reflection on the bank’s state leadership or its staff, who have made overwhelmingly positive contributions to Alaska and in particular the nonprofit community. But they have no sway in San Francisco. This is not to suggest that banks should be forced to finance Arctic oil projects, although extending loan services into economically distressed areas was and is mandated as a remedy to historic redlining practices. They may even have their own internal reasons for not participating in Arctic projects. However, no bank should be allowed to publicly declare and even boast about a discriminatory policy against sovereign people, an entire state or an industry that is vital to national security while still enjoying the benefits and backing of the federal government. Even absent a federal solution, Alaskans have other options for their money with banks and credit unions that are based here and are far more invested in the state’s future than Wells Fargo has decided to be. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

OPINION: A fair share of deception

This week we publish an “explainer” from Robin Brena of the “Fair Share Act” campaign for no other reason than to illustrate the depths he and his cohort are going to deceive Alaskans into raising oil taxes. The only thing the campaign is being honest about is the fact they want to dramatically jack up taxes by at least $1 billion per year according to their own estimate. How they are trying to convince Alaskans to do so is a litany of outright lies or misleading claims being made by people who are still fighting the outcome of the 2014 referendum they lost over the current oil tax structure. The first falsehood they are basing their campaign around is that the tax increase will only be charged against the three large “legacy” fields and “As a result, it will not impact the development of new fields in Alaska.” This is pure garbage. Because ConocoPhillips is required by the Securities and Exchange Commission to break out its Alaska operations in its quarterly and annual tax filings, we know that in 2019 the company made profits of $1.5 billion in Alaska while spending $1.5 billion on capital investments on the North Slope. Every nickel of the company’s income last year was matched on building projects such as Greater Mooses Tooth-2 and exploration development at its massive prospect dubbed Willow. ConocoPhillips executives have stated that while its board sets a global capital budget, its Alaska operations are essentially self-contained in that profits in Alaska are reinvested in Alaska. Even when the company was losing $4.4 billion in 2015, its capital budget in Alaska remained essentially unchanged at about $1 billion and went from 5 percent of its global total to about 20 percent. To argue that raising taxes on legacy fields will not impact the development of new fields is a naked attempt to fool voters. Brena also attempts to mislead Alaskans by describing a “pre-tax profit” on a barrel of oil from Prudhoe Bay he calculates at $40.61 in 2018. Investopedia defines “profit” as “the financial benefit realized when revenue generated from a business activity exceeds the expenses, costs, and taxes involved in sustaining the activity in question.” (emphasis added) A gross, “pre-tax” profit may be useful to a business owner, but only insofar as it helps them determine what their tax liability will be. A picture of profits without accounting for taxes is less informative than trying to interpret a three-year-old’s finger paintings. Brena then combines a lie with another incomplete claim when he writes that Alaska “paid the producers more in cashable credits than we have received in production revenues” since Senate Bill 21 took effect for a full year in 2015. Brena well knows that the major, “legacy” producers have never, ever received “cashable” credits that were only delivered to small companies with either no production or daily output of less than 50,000 barrels per day. A favorite omission by the tax raisers when they talk about only production tax revenue is to never mention the record low oil prices that hammered companies — and the state’s budget — from 2015 to 2017. By conflating the cash credits that predated SB 21 with production tax revenue, Brena et al claim that Alaska’s “share of production revenues after credits collapsed from $19 billion (2009-2013) before SB21 to less than $0 (2015-2019) after SB21.” They don’t tell you what is in the most recent state revenue forecast, which also summarizes historic petroleum revenue from all sources. According to the 2020 figures, from 2015 to 2019 the state collected $10.75 billion in unrestricted and restricted petroleum revenue. At the same time, ConocoPhillips lost billions for three years from 2015 to 2017. During 2016, BP reported that it lost about $1 million per day from its North Slope operations. Nevertheless, they still owed production tax thanks to the gross minimum in SB 21 (that would have collected zero under the previous ACES), they owed property tax and they owed royalty payments. Corporate taxes, which are calculated on net income versus gross (production tax and royalty), were negative but have rebounded to positive territory since 2018 as prices recovered. Here we are again with another price collapse that has crushed revenue, production and jobs, yet the Fair Sharers blithely march along trying to appeal to Alaskans’ rightful concern over the budget and smaller dividends with a self-destructive solution that would drive a stake through the state’s economic engine. We didn’t fall for it in 2014, and it is even more vital to see through another dishonest campaign in 2020. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

OPINION: Dunleavy rewarded for faith in Alaskans

Across the country from Huntington Beach to the Jersey Shore, protests against lockdowns, civil disobedience and court cases striking down governors’ orders are spreading. Here in Alaska all has been relatively calm other than a single drive-through rally in Anchorage on April 22 targeting Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. Now, as the state stands ready for nearly a full reopening on the eve of Memorial Day weekend, Gov. Mike Dunleavy deserves tremendous praise for his leadership style throughout this 100-year pandemic event that has and will continue to wreak long-lasting damage on the state economy. While there has been much fawning (often deservedly) over Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink’s performance, there has been relatively little credit paid to Dunleavy’s steady and optimistic tone since the very beginning. Dunleavy incessantly repeated his trust in Alaskans to do what was being asked of them from social distancing to accepting the need to shutter most businesses temporarily as health care capacity and testing were ramped up. He emphatically and consistently resisted every question or call to use tools such as state inspectors or State Troopers to patrol businesses or the highways to enforce his mandates. Unlike many governors and health officials around the country, he also refused to move the goalposts of what the closures were intended to achieve: lowering the rate of cases and having health care capacity in place to handle any increase. Dunleavy’s faith in Alaskans turned out to be well-founded. The state leads the nation in any metric you can choose from deaths (even inflated as they are by out-of-state numbers and questionable accounting) to cases to hospitalizations to testing per capita. On May 18, more than three weeks after Dunleavy first gave the go-ahead for limited openings on April 24, there were more than 630 tests reported with zero positive results and only a few dozen active cases. In the state’s largest city of nearly 300,000 people, where Berkowitz has acted reluctantly in following Dunleavy’s lead, there were just 22 active cases as of May 19 and barely more than couple hundred cases in total. Those of us who live in Anchorage, whether average citizens or small business owners, owe a great deal of thanks to Dunleavy for getting the state moving far ahead of Berkowitz’s “hunker down” order that he gave every indication of keeping in place until at least May 5. Although Berkowitz repeatedly claimed his orders would be driven by data and not dates, his reopening plan released April 20 had crippling and arbitrary timelines of 14 and 42 days for the first two phases that crushed the hopes of owners who’d been following the shrinking case numbers closely and waiting for any indication from the mayor there was a light at the end of this tunnel that wasn’t an oncoming train. Instead, it has been Dunleavy and his administration that are using data and not dates to open as much as possible as quickly as possible always guided by the principle that we are a free state in a free country ruled above all by personal responsibility. Dunleavy understands that governments derive their power from the consent of the people, and by treating Alaskans with respect and confidence he received the buy-in that other leaders in places like Michigan, New York, California and New Jersey have squandered through excessive restrictions, outright contempt for citizens and the use of police power to enforce their orders. Describing Dunleavy’s less than two years in office as tumultuous is an all-time understatement. Apart from self-inflicted wounds, he has also had to face earthquakes, devastating wildfires and now a pandemic that has driven down oil prices and production, crushed fishing markets and all but eliminated the 2020 tourism season. Tens of thousands are still on unemployment and monumental budget challenges loom that will continue to test his leadership. Leaders accept blame and share credit, so don’t expect Dunleavy to start patting himself on the back. But as we enjoy a three-day weekend that honors those who have given all for this nation among our family and friends whether in the backyard, in the beautiful Alaska outdoors or at our favorite local watering hole, don’t forget how we got to a point that is the envy of most states. We have a governor who didn’t just say we were in this together. He believed it. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

What I learned cleaning up a homeless camp

The first thing I noticed upon reaching the abandoned piles of trash alongside Chester Creek behind my apartment building were several small black and yellow boxes. They resembled the type of packaging that may contain auto fuses and I wondered what new intoxicating purpose had been discovered within them, but as I crouched down for a better look and picked one up I realized the boxes had once contained contact lenses. Then I found the contents strewn about nearby: dozens of lenses still in their unopened plastic containers. The hundreds of dollars worth of product obviously stolen from someone’s mailbox had proven of little value to the thieves and been summarily discarded. The next thing I found was the empty bottle labeled “Dirty Needles!” with the exclamation point cheerfully spiked by a heart. All around I had soon plucked about a dozen needles from the ground, carefully grabbing them by the middle through the Kevlar-lined gloves purchased with this specific risk in mind, and breaking off each tip before placing them into the first of 20 39-gallon trash bags I would eventually fill over four days. I was immediately frustrated as I tried to start with big items such as sleeping bags, pillows, foam and even a box spring but found them literally frozen solid into the ground. They would not budge and forced me to go back to picking up the more mundane trash of cans, bottles, clothes, all types of plastic (but not plastic grocery bags thanks to the Anchorage Assembly and Mayor Ethan Berkowitz!), a seemingly infinite number of batteries, empty aerosols mined as inhalants, and more needles. One lesson quickly learned about avoiding contact with human feces was to be less aggressive grabbing paper or any trash bag near a tree. The oddest thing I kept finding were the six-round loaders sold for toy cap guns, and I wondered once again what new high was being sought from such an innocuous item. I never did find any toy guns, but I did find enough toys to stock a daycare center. The toys, stuffed animals, children’s clothing and diapers that filled my bags were depressing evidence of what had been going on unchecked for months over the winter just 50 yards from my apartment balcony. Not only were an untold number of addicts in a non-stop pursuit of their next high by any means necessary, but small children in the same camp were exposed to this danger and criminal neglect. After spending a couple hours on each of the first two days on the biggest problem area, I moved a little farther downstream to the next site behind my building on the third day. This was apparently some kind of trash burn area, so the piles were at least a bit more concentrated. But without a shovel or a front-loader there was no way to even begin to clean those up other than grabbing the larger items around the edges. Day three was relatively quick work, although I couldn't remove items such as a charred shopping cart and the burnt insides of a mattress. Feeling better about my progress for the day, I spotted a Quaker Oats canister tucked under a bush. It was filled with dozens of needles, which was as disheartening of an exclamation point to the day as the handwritten label on the bottle I found to start day one. My plan for cleanup was to take care of the area immediately behind my building. I assume the land is owned by the municipality based on the fact that the maintenance crew that takes care of the landscaping at my building refuses to pick up even a McDonald’s bag in the area if it isn’t in the parking lot. The area also lies across Chester Creek from the trail so I had zero faith whatsoever that the Parks and Recreation Department would be by anytime in the next few months to take care of it. I’ve lived here for a few years now, and this area had always been a nice perk. I can be on the trail with Dakota in just a few minutes or stroll along the creek banks for shorter bathroom breaks. Every year I host a “trailgating” party for the Iditarod start through Anchorage where friends can gather for breakfast and then watch up close as the teams go by without battling the downtown crowd. The area has been off limits to me since last fall when the camps started popping up behind my building and the one next door. No longer could I stroll through the woods on my way home or walk along the creek. Last September, I heard a splashing sound coming from the creek and wondered if it was a salmon. I knew Chester Creek had salmon, but had never actually seen one despite countless walks on this trail over the years. I walked to the bank and curiosity turned into dismay as I saw what was happening. A shopping cart had been tossed into the creek and several pink salmon were struggling to get around it as they kept getting pushed by the current into the basket. After tying Dakota’s leash to a tree, I made my way down the bank and pulled the cart weighed down by leaves and other trash out, but not without crashing into the mud first. The salmon swam upstream in relief and I drug the cart up the bank and pushed it about 50 feet away. The next day I went back and sure enough it had been chucked into the creek again. As I pulled it out, some guy emerged from a tent and told me he had the cart in the creek trying to catch his girlfriend’s purse that he’d thrown in there. I told him he wasn’t allowed to have carts anymore and muscled two of them up into the parking lot, into my Tahoe and back to their home at Walmart. Not long after I used the tool on the Municipality of Anchorage website to report the budding camps. Rather than the camps being vacated, they expanded all winter to the point they had reached when I started my cleanup. After four days taking care of my small area, I walked up the small rise “next door” and literally stood still in amazement as I gazed around at the scene. An area as big as a football field along the creek is utterly ravaged by trash and burn piles. Imagining what the Environmental Protection Agency would do to a company that allowed this kind of pollution to amass at a drill site or a placer mine is easy. Fines totaling hundreds of thousands if not millions would be in order, yet this is the state the Municipality of Anchorage has allowed to develop within critical fish and wildlife habitat. Chester and Campbell creeks are protected by the state Anadromous Fish Act, and as streams that flow into Cook Inlet and eventually the Pacific Ocean they are subject to the federal Clean Water Act. The creeks and riparian areas are also home to ducks, geese and other species that are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Pollution from plastics, human waste and other trash entering the water is obvious, as are the toxic chemicals leeching into the soil. Perhaps if the administration and the Assembly are not motivated by humanitarian reasons to get Anchorage in order, they could be inspired by the possible liability for destroying the protected natural habitat that is also the central pillar of the city’s marketing strategy. “It’s a national problem,” the mayor often says as he passes the buck when asked about the homeless problem. With all due respect, what has happened to Anchorage is a local problem that has gotten demonstrably worse from the neglect of its elected leaders over the years. When I picked up trash along the Chester Creek trail during City Cleanup in 2010, I filled three or four bags along a mile of the trail. It took a half-hour in one small spot to fill up that many in 2020. While the mayor hectors law-abiding people about getting tattoos, he gives a pass to the people who are passing out or passing the bottle without interruption at the busiest intersections in town. I didn’t clean up the creek banks behind my building so I could write a story about it. I did it so I could enjoy the area again. I know I don’t live in a fancy part of town, but I like it and I’ll be damned if I move before the people who are destroying it are forced to. There are thousands of people like me around Anchorage. We deserve to be heard, and we’re tired of hearing the same story. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

OPINION: The decline is obvious. Anchorage is ready to open.

The peak of new coronavirus cases in Anchorage came on St. Patrick’s Day less than 12 hours after Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz ordered bars, restaurants and “non-essential” businesses such as beauty salons to close. On that day the state reported 9 cases in Anchorage. Every one of those cases could be traced to before the March 16 closure and the mayor’s eventual “hunker down” order that took effect the next week on March 22. Since March 17, the state’s largest metro area with about 300,000 people has never, ever, not once, had more than 9 cases in a day. That happened on March 17, March 20 and March 23. That’s right. Anchorage has not cracked double digits for new cases in a day, even in the week after Berkowitz shut down most businesses and ordered an end to gatherings of more than 10 people at a time when every new case could be traced to before the closures. By any measure, Anchorage has been in decline since March 23. The second-highest number of new cases in a day was March 30 with 8. The average number of new cases per day from March 30 to April 21 in Anchorage is 2.7. The rolling four-day average of new cases has declined from 5.3 on April 2 to 2.3 on April 21. In seven of the 12 days from April 9 to April 21, Anchorage reported either 1 or zero new cases. The number of active cases has increased by an average of less than 1 per day from March 23 to April 20, or from 69 to 92 in 28 days. Yet despite these miniscule numbers and being situated in the capital of the state’s health care system that had nearly 1,000 available beds as of April 21, the mayor is continuing to keep his boot on the Anchorage economy while giving free rein to the criminal element of the homeless population to take over the streets and green spaces. Berkowitz announced a plan to re-open Anchorage on April 20 based on conditions of meeting a 14-day decline standard and availability of testing. Regarding testing, City Manager Bill Falsey said on April 21 that anyone who needs a test in Anchorage can currently get one. At the same time, he was unable to describe in any detail whatsoever what metric the municipality is using to measure what would constitute a 14-day decline. More troubling than the inability to articulate a metric to reopening despite the obvious decline in cases for a month and the widespread availability of tests is the mayor’s 28-day timeline between the start of Phase 1 and Phase 2. April 20 marked five weeks since Berkowitz locked down bars and restaurants and even though new cases in Anchorage were literally zero for four days of the 10 previous days, Falsey could only say it was possible we could enter Phase 1 sometime in May, or potentially seven weeks since the “hunker down” order. It is unconscionable to continue hammering businesses by requiring another four weeks to continue to measure a “decline” that has already hit zero several times and has likely been negative for at least a few of those days based on the number of recovered cases that now outnumber active cases in the state. Destroying businesses both through action and inaction is quite a feat, but the mayor is pulling it off by extending closures without evidence to support them and allowing criminals to trespass, damage and defile private property. Even Phase 1, which anticipates allowing restaurants to open for dine-in service, is unrealistic and unworkable by limiting gatherings to 20 people. No restaurant can open with a 20-person limit that would include the staff. If a business can meet the social distancing and sanitary guidelines it should be able to open regardless of what kind of business it is. If we can allow doctors to literally cut people open, we can allow people to cut hair. The purpose of this lockdown was to slow down the spread and put in place surge capacity for the health care system. Both of those goals have been achieved. The purpose was never to eradicate new cases. That is impossible, and any attempt to move the goalposts in that direction should be rejected. The longer we stay isolated, the longer we postpone the inevitable second series of new cases. The difference is we now have the infrastructure in place to handle the second wave as well as a mountain of data that will help protect vulnerable populations and established practices to prevent transmission. Thousands of people per day are visiting grocery stores, liquor stores, gas stations and fast food drive-thrus, yet we have not seen any evidence of wide community spread in Anchorage. Again, the most cases in a day we had pre-hunker down was 9. The most we’ve had in a day since is 8. That’s proof we can handle social distancing responsibly. Anchorage is ready to open, and it is ready to open now. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

OPINION: Misplaced priorities clarified amid coronavirus

From the endless memes to the Tiger King, dark humor will go down as one of the most effective coping mechanisms for isolated and anxious Americans amid a deadly outbreak that has killed and sickened tens of thousands across the country Unlike some locales that have deployed police drones or actually arrested people for not maintaining a proper distance, our government officials here in Alaska have benevolently allowed us to still go outside. Thanks to that indulgence I enjoyed one of the biggest laughs I’ve had over the past month. While walking Dakota along the Chester Creek trail — and after passing numerous fresh camps and endless trash piles — I reached a small collection of playground equipment pathetically draped in yellow tape. Most concerning as I gazed in sorrow over this plague-ravaged wasteland was realizing the small rocking duck had not been festooned with the impenetrable yellow ribbon of a mayor’s mandate. With no one but Dakota within earshot, I couldn’t help myself. I burst out laughing. It is difficult to imagine more gut-busting evidence that we can trust without fail in government despite its ceaseless complaints of being resourced-starved. While fanned out across the Anchorage parks and trail systems to weave tape through monkey bars and assiduously avoid picking up garbage or posting abatement notices, the Parks and Recreation Department under Mayor Ethan Berkowitz may have stumbled upon a solution to the problem of illegal camping: Yellow tape. If wrapping yellow tape around a swing set can close a playground, then surely a few more rolls strategically strung around some trees will convince the burgeoning greenbelt population to move along, seek help and stop stealing from the neighbors. Or there is the possibility that Operation Monkey Barred is a colossal waste of time and money. When evaluated based on risk of spreading the coronavirus, focusing on teeter totters buried in snow versus increasing neglect of the homeless population is akin to solving the draft from a broken window by closing the curtains. The cruelty of Anchorage’s compassion after years upon years of tolerating open lawlessness is colliding with an easily transmitted virus that’s putting vulnerable people and those who generously care for them at risk. Anchorage’s elected leaders have allowed this problem to get so out of hand that the working group tasked with helping the homeless is seriously requesting the deployment of the National Guard troops to clean up human waste. Downtown Assemblyman Chris Constant supports the request. Thank goodness Anchorage voters just gave this district another seat on the Assembly. We’ll be on the right track in no time. The single most dangerous situation that could contribute to community spread in Anchorage — particularly among the first responders and health care workers we need most right now — has not been reduced over the past month of the mayor strangling the economy and practicing pandemic theater at the playgrounds. It has gotten demonstrably worse. Closing Sportsmen’s Warehouse with the stroke of the pen is easy. Closing down sprawling camps taking over streets is more of a challenge. Only one is an act of leadership. Far secondarily, but shared in common is the mayor’s refusal to follow the lead of governors in Massachusetts and New Hampshire or the original plastic purgers in San Francisco to prohibit reusable bags in stores. The jurisdictions our mayor and Assembly chose to emulate recognize that reusable bags can spread disease, but apparently our problem is bad enough to keep us out of the park but not bad enough to keep germ caddies out of our stores. Banning reusable bags would be an admission the plastic bag ban was and is ill-conceived, which is likely why the mayor hasn’t done it. Saving theoretical sea turtles is more important than stopping the spread. Now, #stayhome, you. Some misplaced priorities have certainly been clarified amid the coronavirus response, and the state Legislature has been no different. A couple days after it was reported here that House Finance Co-Chair Jennifer Johnston declared she didn’t believe Alaska Natives could be trusted with an extra $1,000 and was therefore against paying out the Permanent Fund dividend early, Senate President Cathy Giessel and Senate Finance Co-Chair Natasha von Imhof sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. The letter to Mnuchin, who doesn’t have anything better to do, what with trying to persuade Senate Democrats to expand the Paycheck Protection Program by another $250 billion and literally overseeing trillions of dollars in coronavirus aid, was copied to the congressional delegation but not Gov. Mike Dunleavy and asked what he was “not” allowed to use the state’s share of relief funds for (emphasis in original). In the tone of a student who reminds the teacher she has yet to assign homework, the letter implies Dunleavy has cited plans for improper use of the funds according to their interpretation of the CARES Act. At the end of a week with most Alaskans stuck at home and nearly 40,000 on the unemployment rolls, two of the top three leaders in the Senate decided their most pressing priority was to undermine the governor and bother the U.S. Treasury Secretary while not bothering to help any Alaskans. They were unbothered by the revelation of what has long been alleged but unproven until confirmed by Johnston: members of the shot-caller cohort in the Legislature don’t trust Alaskans with the PFD. Rather than rectify that wrong by reconsidering their decision to withhold the dividend payment until the fall, Giessel and von Imhof chose to suggest Dunleavy is doing the same thing with his vetoes that they actually did with the PFD. Not only did they not pay the PFD according to the formula in state law, the amount and the timing were explicitly based on federal dollars from stimulus checks and unemployment benefits as a substitute. Projection ain’t just a job for laid off movie theater employees. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to put some yellow tape around the fridge. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

OPINION: Legislature has a bigger problem than Johnston

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]

OPINION: Finance co-chair doesn’t trust rural Alaska with early PFD

“Have you ever been to the villages at dividend time?” That was the question posed to me during a phone call from House Finance Co-Chair Jennifer Johnston of Anchorage on April 1, and it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke. That morning I published an opinion column chiding the Legislature for failing to utilize the Permanent Fund to help Alaskans during the worst economic crisis in the state’s history by first canceling the Senate-approved supplemental dividend and then refusing to move up the distribution of the traditional annual payment to provide immediate relief. Johnston asked me how long I’ve lived in Alaska (I learned 10 years is “not very long”), what I know about state finances and whether I was familiar with the federal CARES Act (I covered it in the column she was calling about). She then asked the question at the top of this piece. Without ever asking to be off the record, Johnston went on to state that part of the reasoning for not paying the dividend early was because it would be too much money in rural Alaska on top of the federal payment that was approved in the CARES Act. She further claimed the congressional delegation actually discouraged the Legislature from paying a spring dividend because they shared the same concerns. Representatives for Rep. Don Young, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan all denied such a message was conveyed to the Legislature either by them or members of their staffs. “We unequivocally deny that anyone in our office — including Senator Sullivan — made such a comment to anyone,” wrote his communications director Mike Anderson. “Furthermore, no one in our office, including Senator Sullivan, holds such offensive views.” (I relayed the denials from the delegation to Johnston in a text message. She never responded.) In Johnston’s view, “social services would be overwhelmed” in the villages and elsewhere if Alaskans were to receive their 2020 dividend now instead of in October. You read that right. A key member of the legislative leadership and the conference committee that crafted the state budget did not favor even paying the PFD early because certain people may not spend it wisely. Johnston’s odious reasoning is bad enough, but it is also a shame that the legislative leadership doesn’t apply the same standard to government spending as it does to the PFD. Imagine if government spending was evaluated on whether it is efficient, effective or necessary. Now that you’re done laughing (or crying), the leadership decided against providing help now so they could have more money available later to not let Alaskans decide how to spend. Johnston’s fellow Anchorage Republican and House Rules Chair Chuck Kopp wrote an op-ed claiming the leadership was being “smart and strategic,” which are evidently not qualities that Alaskans possess for themselves to choose how they would use an early distribution of the dividend to cushion the sudden blows of lost jobs, income and peace of mind. A recent report by SmartAsset found Alaska ranks fifth-highest in terms of the most vulnerable jobs in the current economic crisis with 23 percent. That is almost 71,000 jobs and untold family members. One sector not considered vulnerable in that report are government jobs, and Johnston doesn’t think state employees and their families need a dividend right now either, both in her comments to me and repeated on April 3 during a meeting of Commonwealth North. Apparently Johnston believes they are being held harmless by this because nobody is being laid off. The possibility of spouses losing jobs or new expenses such as childcare with schools closed must not have entered her mind. What Johnston sounds like is she doesn’t know anybody who has been hurt by this, she doesn’t have enough understanding or empathy for the working class to believe additional financial security would provide any benefit, and she doesn’t trust Alaska Natives in particular with an extra $1,000. “Alaskans are very quick to have their hands out,” she said in closing to Commonwealth North. I suppose we should be thankful bakeries are still open for to-go orders so that we may get some cake. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected] Editor's note: Because of technical difficulties moderating individual comments, the Facebook comment feature has been turned off. Thank you for reading.

OPINION: Legislature misses chance for immediate help to Alaskans

Faced with the biggest threat to Alaska’s economy in state history, the Legislature failed to meet the moment with a move that would have offered the most immediate relief. The operating budget approved after midnight on March 29 stripped out a supplemental $1,000 dividend payment originally added in the Senate and did not move up the traditional date for distributing the PFD from October while setting the amount at $1,000 per Alaskan. Rather than paying Alaskans a distribution from the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve to help them pay their bills, the Legislature’s solution was to make it illegal to collect bills for three months. Such a scofflaw strategy isn’t surprising after five years of the Legislature avoiding tough decisions by simply not paying bills whether it has been the statutory PFD formula, oil tax credits or its own lease on the office building it commissioned. Instead of taking advantage of Alaska’s unique financial position to help itself, the Legislature is doing another thing it does well: relying on the federal government to foot the bill. Congress passed the CARES Act with a $1,200 per person and $500 per dependent appropriation for certain income levels, and added $600 per week to those now forced into unemployment. That is apparently good enough for the legislative leadership that negotiated the conference committee budget. Paying a supplemental relief check or an early PFD would have required exceeding the 5.25 percent of market value draw from the Permanent Fund, which is the only law the leadership treats as binding. Adhering to the formula is backed by the Permanent Fund Board of Trustees, but much like the laws it passes, the Legislature also picks and chooses what advice to follow from the board. On March 5, the board passed a resolution calling on the Legislature to take one of two actions: either combine the principal and the Earnings Reserve account into one with a fixed 5 percent annual draw, or failing that to maintain a balance in the ERA of at least four times the annual draw that would be roughly $12 billion. Given the rapidly unfolding circumstances of the coronavirus spread, there was no chance of attempting a lift that would be difficult in the best of times such as combining the Permanent Fund accounts. However, the Legislature gave no thought to reversing the $4 billion transfer from the ERA to the principal approved last year, and even went a step further by appropriating another $1 billion to the corpus under the nebulous purpose of “inflation proofing.” If Gov. Mike Dunleavy doesn’t veto that $1 billion transfer — and he should — the total budgetary and supplemental transfers out of the ERA would likely lower its balance to less than $7 billion, or just about half of what the Board of Trustees recommended. After attempting to move $9 billion from the ERA to the corpus last year (Dunleavy vetoed $5 billion of that), the need to move another $1 billion for “inflation proofing” doesn’t hold a colander’s worth of water. What it looks like is the legislative leadership is tired of hearing from constituents and the governor that “the money is there” in the ERA to pay Alaskans a statutory dividend or even a supplemental “true-up” to the 2019 check. By refusing to follow the Permanent Fund board’s advice to keep a 4-times buffer in the ERA, and in fact taking affirmative action to reject it with the latest $1 billion transfer, what it looks like is the leadership is attempting to starve the PFD out of the budget. Moving $5 billion to the untouchable corpus of the Fund at a time when Alaska is staring down economic ruin is actually far more irresponsible than paying a supplemental dividend. Our two sources of revenue — oil and investments — are being hammered in tandem. New projects that promise thousands of jobs, hundreds of thousands of barrels per day and billions in revenue are on hold. Our biggest private sector employer — fishing — is likewise in limbo with nearly three-quarters of its harvest typically bound for restaurants that are now shuttered across the globe. Our one bright spot in the recession — tourism — is on the brink of having no cruise season based on federal distancing guidelines, Canadian restrictions and one headline after another about outbreaks on ships that will surely discourage travelers even if sailings begin. Those four industries alone account for more than $10 billion in state revenue and economic activity, to say nothing of the destruction of the state’s hospitality sector that is also ongoing through mandated government closures. In their effort to save the Permanent Fund from themselves by slashing the ERA balance, this Legislature is taking financial options off the table that other states would love to have, and ones we may yet need. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

OPINION: Rush to judgment on recall results in ridiculousness

Perhaps the most monumental case to ever reach the Alaska Supreme Court is turning into a monumental you-know-what show. The decision on whether any or all of the allegations against Gov. Mike Dunleavy are sufficient to allow the first recall of a statewide official will establish a consequential precedent, but the case so far has been marred by rushed rulings and subsequent reversals driven by an artificial political timeline rather than the carefully measured judicial review it demands. To be sure, there are statutory deadlines that must be met as far as procedures for certifying signatures or setting an election; the judicial branch is bound by no such constraints, however, and yet its officers appear determined to squeeze this process into a timeframe that would fit into an episode of Judge Judy as they bend over backward to accommodate the political wishes of the recall proponents who believe they should be able to choose the timing of an election. Starting with Superior Court Justice Eric Aarseth’s decision to rule from the bench after oral argument on Jan. 10 — which came as a surprise to both sides — this case has devolved into a whipsaw of hasty actions that frankly should embarrass the system. Let’s review: After taking a 10-minute recess, Aarseth issued a 20-minute decision allowing all but one allegation to stand. He then told the Dunleavy defense he was not inclined to grant a stay of signature gathering. Stand Tall With Mike attorney Brewster Jamison asked if he should make his stay request right then to have it on the record, but Aarseth told him to put it in writing. After the stay request was submitted, a surprise decision came out from Aarseth’s office granting it. But it turns out that was a mistake from literally phoning in his ruling, and Aarseth withdrew the order the next day much to the joy of the recall proponents. (one can only wonder if Aarseth would consider his mistake to rise to incompetence as he did for Dunleavy’s Medicaid veto he allowed to stand in the recall petition) But then Aarseth heard arguments for the stay and reinstated his mistaken ruling. Subsequently the Supreme Court reversed Aarseth to allow signature gathering, and went on to tell the parties it could also rule from the bench after it hears arguments on March 25. Stand Tall With Mike took both the reversal of the stay and the expressed intent for a quick decision as indicative the recall would go forward no matter what, and promptly withdrew from the case. But we’re not done with the twists and turns. On their way to the door, Dunleavy’s defenders also questioned Chief Justice Joel Bolger’s impartiality in the case based on his involvement and public statements over allegations included in the recall petition. The Supreme Court quickly issued a statement saying Bolger had no conflicts requiring recusal while inviting either side to ask for it if they chose. Then Bolger apparently refreshed his memory of his own comments regarding aspects of the case and recused himself anyway, making both STWM’s decision to abruptly withdraw and the Court’s initial statement of nothing-to-see-here look ill-considered in hindsight. The devolution of this case into farce is entirely the fault of the judges who have presided over it so far. The recall proponents are not entitled to expedited review, nor are they entitled to an election at the time of their choosing, yet the judicial branch has apparently decided they are and now has egg covering its face as a result. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

OPINION: Murkowski does right thing for wrong reasons

Among the many insightful quotes by the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, this one ranks at or near the top: “I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing.” As it applies to Alaska’s senior U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and her votes during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, Friedman’s rule would be modified to the right people doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Murkowski, as she often is, was in the spotlight as a top target for Democrats and the media as one of the most susceptible to public pressure and an openness to go against her party; this time she was starring in a role as one of a rump minority in the Senate who could be persuaded to bail out and extend the pathetic case brought by the House of Representatives through issuing subpoenas to new witnesses. One of the members of the pearl-clutching, well-I-never caucus that includes Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and the petulant two-time presidential loser Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, Murkowski never misses an opportunity to attack Trump despite enjoying all the perks, privileges and power that he and his coattails delivered to her in 2016 by winning the White House and preserving the Republican majority in the Senate. “The President’s behavior was shameful and wrong,” Murkowski declared on Feb. 3, parroting the Democrat narrative of Trump’s dealings with the Ukrainians that inspired the weakest impeachment charges in our national history. “His personal interests do not take precedence over those of this great nation. “The president has the responsibility to uphold the integrity and honor of the office. Not just for himself but for all future presidents. Degrading the office, by actions or even name calling, weakens it for future presidents, and weakens our country.” The two topics Trump raised to Ukraine’s new president last July 25 with at least a dozen people listening in — the country’s interference in the 2016 election and the questionable relationship between the Bidens and Burisma — are in fact well-rooted and go beyond his “personal interests.” Dating back to January 2017 through independent reporting, there is no question Ukrainian officials worked in concert with the Democrat National Committee in an attempt to influence the 2016 election in Hillary Clinton’s favor by providing “dirt” on former campaign manager Paul Manafort and even penning op-eds endorsing Clinton over Trump. Through his own words, former Vice President Joe Biden openly bragged in 2018 that he threatened to withhold $1 billion in aid to Ukraine in 2016 unless they fired a prosecutor with an investigation against the most corrupt company in one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. That company, Burisma Holdings, hired his cocaine-sniffing, stripper-impregnating, deadbeat dad of a son Hunter Biden to a $1 million per year gig on its board of directors in an obvious attempt to curry influence with the father who was in charge of Ukraine relations under former President Barack Obama. The evidence of corruption in Ukraine is overwhelming, especially as it relates to oligarchs skimming the national treasury and aid dollars along with passing kickbacks to well-connected bureaucrats and hapless American political spawn like Hunter Biden, and it is well within the national interest to ensure that $400 million worth of U.S. funding isn’t simply being laundered to their benefit. “Shameful and wrong” behavior? Not hardly. To characterize the president this way in light of what we now know about how Obama’s FBI and CIA used a foreign-sourced piece of Clinton opposition research to violate the constitutional rights of American citizens and spark a three-year investigation of Trump is downright laughable. Murkowski’s obsession with Trump’s mean tweets and lack of decorum as he’s accused alternately of being the next Hitler or a puppet of Vladimir Putin only plays into the hands of Democrats who hate him and would reverse all the favors and attention he has showered on Alaska since taking office. Unlike his last two predecessors, Trump hasn’t gotten thousands of U.S. service members killed and maimed overseas. Unlike his predecessors dating to Bill Clinton, he refused to accept the status quo of China taking advantage of us in trade at every turn while openly stealing American intellectual property and national security secrets, or to continue to allow the disastrous North American Free Trade Act to remain in place. Unlike his predecessors dating to Ronald Reagan, he has refused to let our generous national spirit be abused by illegal immigration or continued a long-held presidential tradition of promising to secure the border as a candidate while holding no actual intention to do so once in office. For all the talk about Trump being some kind of wannabe dictator, he’s never refused a court order or failed to obey one of the ludicrous nationwide injunctions that have been issued at a rate unprecedented in history and more importantly unrooted in legal precedent. Not once during the Mueller investigation did he claim executive privilege. His son and his own White House counsel alone testified for some 50 hours combined. The closest the Democrat dream team of lawyers could come to an obstruction charge was him expressing a desire to fire Mueller. That isn’t obstruction any more than wanting to punch Rep. Adam Schiff in the face can be considered assault. Mean tweets? Please. Murkowski is far too savvy of a politician to have just now realized that the Democrats will burn down every institution in an effort to get Trump. They’ve spent years calling him a traitor in hock to Putin and doing his bidding. They’ve had the majority back in the House for barely a year and have already degraded it through the bastardization of the impeachment power. Their attacks on the Supreme Court have been a constant for the past two decades dating back to Bush v. Gore. For goodness’ sake, Murkowski was in the audience at the State of the Union in 2010 when Obama took the opportunity to attack the justices to their faces over the Citizens United case and now she’s surprised that Sen. Elizabeth Warren and her unhinged cohort would target Chief Justice John Roberts? The only reason Roberts was in the position of potentially being called upon to take a tie-breaking vote on witnesses was because Murkowski, Collins and Romney put him there by signaling a willingness to enable the farce brought to their chamber by the House. And how can we forget the role Murkowski herself played in undermining the Supreme Court when she cast the lone GOP vote against Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 following the disgusting smear campaign run against him by citing his supposed ill temperament for daring to express his outrage over being accused of being a gang rapist? She said it best in her speech announcing her intent not to convict Trump even while assailing her colleagues: “That level of hypocrisy is astounding even for D.C.” On balance, Murkowski, like Trump, is good for Alaska and she deserves credit for doing the right thing on her votes against witnesses and conviction. But it would have been nice if she could do the right thing without stabbing her fellow Republicans in the back and lending credence to the Democrats’ madness in the process. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

OPINION: Aarseth abdicates on judicial review

As it turns out, the only thing Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth struck from the petition to recall Gov. Mike Dunleavy was the only thing that was truly driving the effort in the first place. In a surprise ruling from the bench on Jan. 10, Aarseth reversed the Division of Elections decision not to certify the recall petition and ordered petition booklets to be distributed no later than Feb. 10. He allowed four of the five allegations against Dunleavy to stand, yet his reasoning to strike the charge that the governor improperly used his line item veto to “preclude the legislature from upholding its constitutional Health, Education and Welfare responsibilities” is at odds with his logic for upholding two other allegations regarding vetoes. Despite its vagueness, Aarseth did not strike the allegation that Dunleavy used his line-item veto authority to “attack” the judiciary and the rule of law, nor did he strike the allegation that he acted “incompetently” with a mistake in a Medicaid veto. Aarseth ruled that the charge Dunleavy precluded the Legislature from exercising its constitutional responsibilities was undermined by the fact that the remedy exists to override his vetoes and the mere fact that it is difficult to achieve a three-quarters majority was not enough to support the allegation. What that means is that according to Aarseth, had Dunleavy held firm on his original line-item vetoes of more than $400 million, it would still not rise to the level of a recallable offense. And yet Aarseth declined to extend that same logic to the court veto or the mistake on the Medicaid veto despite the Legislature having the exact same override remedy at its hands. (As an aside, Aarseth’s determination that the “attack on the judiciary and rule of law” met the particularity standard was a particularly egregious dereliction of judicial review. Even recall attorney Jahna Lindemuth acknowledged the lack of specificity with a defense of the charge that boiled down to “they know what we’re talking about.”) By declaring that recall is an inherently political process and that it isn’t for the judicial branch to apply much if any scrutiny to whether charges actually rise to the level of neglect, lack of fitness, incompetence or corruption, Aarseth shoved the needle away from the established “middle ground” for recall into the “at-will” edge of the spectrum that was expressly rejected by the constitutional framers. Judicial review is what gives Alaska a “middle ground” standard for recall, and Aarseth abdicated this responsibility nearly entirely. In the one area he exercised his power of review, he exposed his flawed reasoning on others. Hopefully the Supreme Court will give this weighty measure the true review and serious consideration it deserves as opposed to the slipshod bench ruling from Aarseth. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

OPINION: Assembly’s lack of vision dooms solutions

The Anchorage Assembly held a town hall Jan. 7 at the Loussac Library to present both the city’s current budget situation and three different sales tax proposals it will consider for the April municipal ballot at its Jan. 14 meeting. Not up for debate as of yet is the citizen-led Project ‘20s, which proposes a 3 percent sales tax to last no more than five years to address homelessness, improve vital infrastructure and build long overdue amenities for the city’s Downtown district. Project ‘20s campaign manager Moira Gallagher was given just two minutes to speak and so far no Assembly member has been willing to sponsor the initiative with an apparent general consensus it is not ripe for consideration having just been formally rolled out in the last few weeks. That may be a valid critique, but remains no excuse for the members, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz and would-be mayor and current member Forrest Dunbar to offer nothing more than a repeat of the alcohol tax that failed spectacularly last April or tilting at a Quixotic windmill of a “community dividend” drawn from the Alaska Permanent Fund that has chances of emerging from the Legislature roughly equal to the recent subzero temperatures across Anchorage. Only the most optimistic, or delusional, could leave the meeting with any sense that Anchorage is closer to becoming more self-sufficient after years of cuts to state funding for both operations and the capital budget. Dunbar contended he and fellow sponsors Felix Rivera and Austin Quinn-Davidson have improved on their alcohol tax proposal that went down in flames last year, yet the tax remains stuck on one group of people and an open-ended money pit that contains no goals, no measurables and, most importantly, no accountability. K&L Distributors President Don Grasse vowed to defeat the alcohol tax once again while reiterating the industry’s general position that it is not opposed to a broad-based sales tax. Suite 100 owner Kelly Nichols also pointed out the silliness of the Assembly’s fixation on only taxing alcohol by asking why not tax all beverages. “Do you know how much coffee we drink in this town?” he asked. Unlike some Assembly members and the mayor, Grasse’s and the industry’s position is reasonable. They refuse to accept the premise that consumers of alcohol should bear the burden for paying for the irresponsible decisions of others; based on last year’s vote, a majority of the public agrees with them. We can either be a community willing to tackle these problems together or we can have the mayor and the liberal majority on the Assembly attempt to pin the cost for solutions on one group of residents. Sin taxes are the laziest and least imaginative ideas, which makes it unsurprising politicians keep trying them. The Assembly doesn’t even need to be as creative or forward-thinking as Project ‘20s. A one-penny sales tax would raise about $25 million per year compared to the $11 million to $15 million estimated under the 5 percent alcohol tax. Half the revenue could be dedicated to homeless services and treatment and the other half could go to property tax relief. Even the most ardent anti-tax crowd would be hard-pressed to argue that is an undue burden when it would still be one-third the size of Wasilla’s sales tax. But that gets us no closer to actually building the Anchorage of the future and until we have political leaders willing to exhibit such a vision instead of continuing to take the easy way out we’ll be doomed to yet another year without solutions to our most pressing problems. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

OPINION: A better choice for Anchorage

After Anchorage voters resoundingly rejected a 5 percent tax on alcohol sales last April, the backers of the levy immediately announced plans to try again on the next municipal ballot. Proponents blamed the defeat on the boogeyman of the alcohol industry rather than voters’ rightful skepticism about how the money would be spent or a general opposition to taxing one group of residents to address the citywide problem of homelessness. Assembly members Felix Rivera, Austin Quinn-Davidson and Forrest Dunbar reintroduced the tax — the ninth attempt to institute a city sales tax on alcohol since 1984 — this past Dec. 17 and it is scheduled to be deliberated at the Jan. 14 meeting. This time, though, Anchorage voters may be given a better choice. A coalition of stakeholders have teamed up on a proposal recently rolled out called “Project ‘20s Anchorage” they will present at a town hall meeting at Loussac Library on Jan. 7 at 6 p.m. (See project20sanchorage.com) Rather than an open-ended 5 percent tax only on alcohol sales, the Project ‘20s proposal is for a time-limited 3 percent sales tax that would sunset after either five years or $375 million in revenue. No debt would be taken on; projects will begin as revenue is sufficient. The administrative costs of the sales tax would be paid for from the sales tax revenue, and as money comes in it will be placed into interest-bearing accounts to grow. In other words, the Assembly can’t touch it. Instead of a nebulous guarantee to use tax revenue on various services, the Project ‘20s plan has a specific list of projects ranging from necessary infrastructure to desirable amenities as well as earmarking $80 million of the tax revenue to create an Anchorage Housing Trust that would spin off $3.5 million per year to pay for operating expenses targeted toward permanent supportive housing. On the infrastructure side of the list is a new fire station for Eagle River to reduce currently unacceptable response times and in a similar vein improve evacuation and access routes for homes on the Anchorage Hillside that are also threatened by the possibility of wildfires. Revenue would be used for long-overdue improvements to the city’s crown jewel of a trail system that has fallen into disrepair with invasive species and overgrown brush that reduces visibility and allows for both illegal camping and occasionally dangerous wildlife encounters. Using an invention right from the University of Alaska Anchorage, the Project ‘20s plan calls for installing the UAA’s patented “Tundra Tape” to heat Downtown sidewalks that will both improve safety and accessibility but also reduce maintenance costs for snow and ice removal. An arts district would be created on Fourth Avenue with widened sidewalks to allow for streetside patio seating; Fourth Avenue would also see improvements to mark the “Mushing District” where the annual ceremonial start of the Iditarod takes place. The Performing Arts Center would get a much-needed overhaul as it approaches 40 years old dating back to its construction as part of “Project ‘80s” when Anchorage received an infusion of state cash as oil money rolled in to build amenities such as the PAC, Loussac and the Sullivan Arena. Finally, part of the sales tax revenue would create a Ship Creek Promenade and Brewing District to take advantage of Anchorage’s natural ocean front and scenery with a walkable destination both for visitors disembarking the railroad or cruise ships as well as a desirable home for restaurants, shops and residential development. An outdoor amphitheater — another desperately needed amenity Anchorage lacks in comparison to similar sized peer cities — may be part of the final proposal as well. The days of Christmas tree capital budgets that paid for Project ‘80s or more recently the $130 million Alaska Airlines Center are simply over. The time is now for Anchorage to take care of itself. The municipality has pressing needs for both infrastructure that improves safety for our residents as well as the kind of amenities that will be a source of pride. The tax is set at a reasonable level and contains exceptions for unprepared food, feminine products, medicine and medical services, among others, and is capped at no more than $900 on any transaction. There will be no debt and no Assembly sticking its hands in the jar for any other purposes. For those who just have to tax alcohol, they’ll get 3 percent instead of 5. Most importantly, after the target amount is raised or after five years, it will automatically end. Reintroducing the alcohol tax would be the definition of insanity by doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. Continuing to complain about a lack of state funding or a tight municipal budget as a reason we can’t take on homelessness in a serious fashion is like hitting ourselves in the head with a hammer because it feels so good when we stop. We can keep trying the same thing, or we can stop hitting ourselves in the head. We could do something different, and what Project ‘20s offers is a chance to make Anchorage better for generations for everyone rather than taxing one group to put a bandaid on one problem. Voters deserve a better option than another doomed try at taxing alcohol. The Assembly should give it to them. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

OPINION: One minute to midnight

Choosing a theme for our annual forecast edition cover isn’t usually a simple task — especially resisting the temptation for the easy way out by going with a fortune teller or a crystal ball — but that wasn’t the case as we prepare to ring in a new decade. The famous Doomsday Clock ticking toward midnight is the best representation of where Alaska stands entering its sixth year grappling with a budgetary crisis that has now spanned three governors presiding over deficit spending that has all but drained our main savings accounts. Looking back over the past six covers from a weather map featuring a forecast of hot air from Juneau in 2014 to a Magic 8 ball in 2019 (not a crystal ball, but close), and the progression is stark from irreverence focused on political drama to the reality entering 2020 that very little has changed for the better and time is truly up. The 2015 cover of politicos playing poker featured just one — Democrat Rep. Chris Tuck of Anchorage — who is still in the same position and 2017 pictured a young girl with a Christmas wish for a budget solution. In my 2017 forecast column, the situation then seemed dire enough to compel the Legislature into finding a solution: “It’s almost appropriate that one of Gov. Bill Walker’s last acts of the year was to kill the Juneau Access Project, because the Legislature has run out of road to kick the can. “The state’s savings won’t last more than another year and we’ll have to wait and see whether the dynamic of a three-way power struggle between the Republican Senate, Democrat House and independent governor forces a solution or only produces gridlock worse than what we’ve witnessed in the last two years.” After the political death match of 2019 that saw the Legislature in multiple sessions spanning nearly half the year, court battles, rallies, vetoes, vitriolic rhetoric and ultimately the spawning of a recall campaign against Gov. Mike Dunleavy, suffice it to say that my latter take on the possibilities of 2017 was unfortunately the one that came true. Turns out things could get worse. A lot worse. Dunleavy’s first budget introduced this past February ranked somewhere between the Hindenburg and the Titanic in terms of successful debuts with its draconian if not impossible cuts and proposed clawbacks of local tax revenue on fish and oil infrastructure. The budget created a shotgun marriage in the House with a few Republicans crossing the aisle to join Democrats in exchange for plum committee seats, but ultimately was destined to crack and lost Reps. Gabrielle LeDoux and Tammie Wilson over the size of the PFD and overriding Dunleavy’s vetoes, respectively. The Senate majority, with 13 Republicans and Democrat Lyman Hoffman of Bethel, had superior numbers on paper but loose caucus rules designed to appeal to oft-intransient members from the Mat-Su Valley ended up backfiring on President Cathy Giessel. On its face, Dunleavy’s second budget that features virtually no cuts, a full PFD according to the formula still on the books and emptying three-quarters of the Constitutional Budget Reserve to pay for it all looks like an abdication of leadership. House Speaker Bryce Edgmon said as much in his response to the budget. “Spending is only half of the budget, and the governor is deferring to the legislature on how to pay for it,” Edgmon said. “Alaska cannot afford to delay tough decisions another year.” A common phrase regarding the obvious and involving Sherlock Holmes comes to mind in reading Edgmon’s statement. The legislative leadership in both bodies spent the last year pounding their chests and asserting their appropriating superiority under the state Constitution; on similar arguments nearly two-thirds of the Legislature defied his call to a special session in Wasilla to take futile votes in Juneau that failed to override his vetoes totaling more than $400 million. What Dunleavy did — in a move that has his new Chief of Staff Ben Stevens’ political savvy covering it like gravy — is give the Legislature exactly what they claim they want. There are ideas — mostly in the Senate — for a spending cap and for changes to the PFD formula that would allow Alaska to finally put a stop to six years of stalemates and spending from savings. Both pieces are vital, and neither should be derailed either by committee members who try to prevent a bill from reaching the floor or the governor’s threats of a veto. There are parliamentary means to pull a bill from committee if the leadership believes it deserves a floor vote. If a reasonable solution makes it out of the Legislature to Dunleavy’s desk, what happens next is up to him but at least lawmakers will finally have a clear conscience that they did their jobs. Dunleavy is absolutely right, though, that ill-crafted legislation that doesn’t check the growth of spending at the expense of the dividend will remain subject to repeal by referendum and therefore public buy-in is crucial. Declaring himself open to solutions and compromise, Dunleavy has left legislators no excuses for another unproductive session. Thanks to the $65 billion Permanent Fund and no shortage of promising prospects on the North Slope, Alaska remains blessed with the ability to take care of ourselves. The time is now for the people we’ve elected to show they have the political will and aptitude to pull it off. Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

OPINION: 2019 from A to Z

After the year Alaska has had, it really was no choice between an “A to Z” column or a “naughty or nice” for my Year in Review. The following contains a few light jabs, but the naughty list has pretty well been chronicled in this space all year and well, pretty much includes everybody. So without further ado, the time-honored and far-from-original Year in Review from A-to-Z. A is for AFN, ASRC and ANWR: A recent analysis of Facebook posts tabbed Dec. 11 as “breakup day”, which wasn’t far off from the biggest news to end the year. On Dec. 16 the news broke that Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the state’s largest company, is exiting the Alaska Federation of Natives. No official reason has been given yet, but the most obvious is the climate change emergency resolution that AFN adopted at its annual meeting in October over the strenuous objections of the ASRC board chair. The Arctic Slope Native Association was a driving force in the creation of AFN, which has become the strongest organization of the nation’s first people over the past 60 years. But ultimately, ASRC, heavily invested in the oil and gas business, knows exactly how the North Slope Borough has achieved a poverty rate of just 11 percent that ranks well better than the state and national averages. The company’s first obligation is to its shareholders and meeting those responsibilities may no longer align with the official position of AFN. B is for Budget: The year began with half the Legislature in disarray until the House coalesced around opposition to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s first budget that proposed more than $1 billion in budget cuts. The year ends with the Legislature befuddled as Dunleavy put the budget ball in its hands with a proposal of no cuts and a huge draw from savings to balance. Legislative leaders pounded their chests all year about their superiority as the appropriators under the constitution. Dunleavy’s budget will force them to deliver on that power. C is for Chief(s) of Staff: Tuckerman Babcock, Dunleavy’s first chief of staff, barely made it eight months on the job before being axed in favor of the far more politically savvy Ben Stevens. Babcock’s infamous and unnecessary “loyalty pledge” letters to non-union state employees robbed Dunleavy of any kind of honeymoon before he was even inaugurated and set the tone for a tumultuous early tenure in office. D is for Dividend: For the fourth year in a row, the statutory dividend formula was disregarded as the Legislature settled on an amount of just more than $1,600 achieved only by draining the last couple hundred million from the Statutory Budget Reserve. Without that move and hundreds of millions in cuts, the PFD could have been as low as $600. Now without any cuts and fewer options, buying off enough Alaskans in an election year will be a tricky lift for legislators who want to keep their jobs. E is for ExxonMobil, which signed an agreement to pursue shipping LNG directly off the Arctic coast from the Point Thomson field. Although the company agreed to put $10 million toward finishing a the FERC permitting process for the Alaska LNG Project, the move to explore Arctic shipping is essentially the final nail in the effort to monetize North Slope gas with an export pipeline through Alaska. F is for Furie Operating Alaska, which struggled to meet gas supply agreements and its debt obligations, and certainly wasn’t helped by never receiving some $105 million in tax credit payments from the state, declared bankruptcy in August and was bought by Gov. Bill Walker’s former oil and gas advisor John Hendrix. G is for Galvin: Only in Alaska can coming within a few points of beating the unbeatable Rep. Don Young count as a qualification to run again, but that’s Alyse Galvin’s best talking point so far. Alaskans have refused to replace the Dean of the House for decades now, and going from No. 1 in seniority to No. 435 doesn’t seem any more likely in a year with both President Donald Trump and Sen. Dan Sullivan on the ballot. H is for Hilcorp: The Houston independent made a blockbuster deal in August with BP to buy all its Alaska assets for $5.6 billion. While many have praised Hilcorp for its ability to rejuvenate old fields, of which Prudhoe Bay certainly qualifies, unanswered questions remain about what its state workforce will look like and whether the public will get to peek at the private company’s financial records. I is for Independent in Name Only: House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, a longtime Democrat, changed his political affiliation to Independent in a cosmetic move to cement a majority with members of the Republican Party. J is for John Sturgeon: The long-running “hovercraft” case finally came to an end with a win in the second try at the Supreme Court that upheld Alaska’s — and Alaskans’ — rights under federal law. While the victory was rightly celebrated, less discussed was a burdensome system in our country that can require millions of dollars and years of time that few possess to achieve justice. K is for Kinross: The owners of the Fort Knox gold mine celebrated a milestone in October with the eight millionth ounce poured at the mine that began operating 23 years ago. Another bright spot for the industry is that for the second year in a row, mineral exploration topped $150 million in Alaska. L is for Laid Up: As the year winds down, six of the state’s 11 ferries are either laid up or for sale. Maintenance costs are skyrocketing, revenue is falling and nobody seems to have a good answer about how to preserve a system that is still responsible for serving tens of thousands of Alaskans. M is for Murkowski: Alaska’s senior U.S. senator is still no big fan of a lot of what President Trump says and does, and isn’t afraid to say so herself, the fact that House Democrats haven’t come close to moving her toward considering impeachment may be the best indication of how pathetic their case is. N is for North Slope Renaissance: Production dropped below the 500,000 barrels per day benchmark in 2019, but help is on the way. Permitting continues to advance for the burgeoning Pikka project and ConocoPhillips’ Willow in the NPR-A. Spending, exploration and jobs are up; and Colorado wildcatter Bill Armstrong is back in a big way after snapping up 1 million acres for more than $10.5 million at the Dec. 11 lease sale. O is for Oil: This is a no-brainer in Alaska, but for most of the year North Slope Crude was also the most expensive in the world, often trading at as much as $2 premium to the Brent benchmark. P is for Per Diem: Despite passing a law in 2018 that would prevent legislators from collecting per diem for every day past the constitutional limit without an operating budget, lawmakers voted to cut themselves the checks anyway. While every legislator who voted for it and took it deserves a rhetorical rap on the knuckles, the worst has to be Rep. David Eastman of Wasilla, who contributes nothing to the Legislature and was involved in no budget talks yet was one of just a handful who claimed the maximum amount. Q is for Questions: While it is normal for governors to roll out their budgets with the aid of commissioners on hand to discuss specifics, ducking out of the room after 11 minutes is not. Gov. Dunleavy’s declared mission to communicate better in his second year went unfulfilled on Dec. 11 as he left reporters hanging. R is for Recall: In barely a month, backers of a campaign to recall Dunleavy gathered nearly 50,000 signatures only to find their petition unceremoniously dumped by Attorney General Kevin Clarkson. The battle is destined for the Supreme Court and a precedent-setting decision that will determine whether Alaska will witness the first statewide recall in its history and just how high of a bar needs to be cleared to put a state with enough problems through such a divisive process. S is for Share: As in “Fair Share,” the tiresome mantra of the never-ending campaign to raise oil taxes. Yet another initiative could be on the ballot this coming year, this time with a proposed hike of some $1 billion or more per year. Proponents claim it will have no negative impact on the major developments underway, but anyone who believes that can line up to make bids on a bridge over the Knik Arm. T is for Tariffs: As Alaska’s seafood industry deals with tariffs imposed by China amid its trade war with President Trump, increases are proposed at the Port of Alaska to pay for needed repairs. The state caught a break last year when the aging port in Anchorage didn’t collapse amid the fury of a 7.1 magnitude earthquake and hundreds of significant aftershocks, but time is running out to fix what is easily the second-most important piece of infrastructure in the state ranking only behind the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. U is for Unemployment Rate: The state is currently at a record low number, although economists will point out the decline in the state’s workforce as a key factor in reducing the rate. Nevertheless, the state has been gaining jobs slowly as it crawls out of the longest recession in its history. V is for Visitors: In what’s become an annual bright spot for the economy, tourism numbers continue to set records led by expanded sailings from the world’s major cruise companies, many who are making investments to better serve a burgeoning base of customers visiting the Last Frontier. W is for Wasilla: Bizarre scenes unfolded over the summer as about three dozen legislators went to Juneau in defiance of Dunleavy’s call to Wasilla, while the rest sat at desks in a middle school gym in Wasilla. Futile votes to overturn were cast down south while those up north did little more than recite the Pledge of Allegiance. X is for Xtreme Measures: OK, “X” always screws up the A-Z column. But the state’s goofy plan to ask for $60,000 in donations from the public for Real ID services in rural Alaska — after the governor proposed a $1 billion supplemental budget — deserved a mention somewhere. Y is for Young: The only member of Congress who can invite a camera crew along on a tour of cannabis businesses, Don Young just keeps going. Whether it ever gets out of the Senate or not, one achievement of Young this year was to get 331 votes in the House to repeal federal banking rules to allow business with the cannabis industry. Young doesn’t believe in smoking pot, but he does believe in states’ rights. Z is for Zaletel: Anchorage Assembly Member Meg Zaletel proposed shifting about $2 million in the city’s budget for the coming year to address its unending homeless crisis, but only managed about a third of that in the final vote. Democrats, who are represented by the mayor and a super majority on the assembly, are fond of saying budgets reflect values. Addressing the city’s top problem isn’t reflected in the budget that’s been approved. Congratulations if you made it this far and Happy Holidays, everyone! Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

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