Rules over reality, and clouding Sunshine Week
A couple weeks ago, the House Majority offered a high-minded defense against an accusation by Gov. Bill Walker that it was working for someone other than Alaskans by trying to limit his expansion plans for a state-led gas pipeline.
On March 2 in House Speaker Mike Chenault’s office, sponsors of legislation to prioritize the Alaska LNG Project over Walker’s new plan to create a competing project went one-by-one around the room emphasizing that they work for their 17,000 or so constituents in addition to all Alaskans.
That respect for working for constituents came to an abrupt end just two weeks later when the same Majority caucus booted Eagle River Republican Rep. Lora Reinbold for the crime of voting against their operating budget.
Reinbold believes cuts to the operating budget didn’t go far enough and said she was frustrated to see spending that was cut in subcommittees being reinserted into the final budget.
In response, the caucus stripped Reinbold of key committee assignments, including as co-chair of the Joint Armed Services Committee. By punishing Reinbold for voting according to the wishes of her constituents — who include the heart of Alaska’s military population — the caucus is now also punishing them and looking petty in the process.
Rules are rules, Chenault said, apparently unaware of the contradiction between what his members said about working for their constituents first on March 2 and punishing one who did just that two weeks later.
In healthy budget times, perhaps some defense could be offered for a rule that demands caucus unity over personal differences, but we are hardly living in normal budget times facing $7 billion in deficits over the current and next fiscal years.
It is the picture of tone deafness to put caucus rules over reality when the dispute revolves around the best way to get Alaska’s budget situation under control.
While it is true that Alaska cannot cut its way out of a $3.5 billion hole this year or next, it is also true that the ever-swelling operating budget has been flagged as an issue to be addressed long before the bottom fell out of oil prices in the last eight months.
Just a couple years ago, it was well-known that prices would eventually have to maintain levels of $120 per barrel or more just to balance the budget, and that was when prices were consistently hovering around the $100 mark instead of closer to $40 where they are now.
The fact is, any simple, one-time cuts in the operating budget are insufficient to fix the unsustainable path we’re on.
It is long past time to start figuring out ways to bend the cost curve down on the drivers of the operating budget, and perhaps Sen. Pete Kelly’s effort to reform Medicaid will be able to do that.
It is surely not the time for Walker to jeopardize the state’s best hope for new revenue through commercializing North Slope gas just to fulfill his decades-old dream of being the guy who delivered a gasline to Alaskans.
Nor is it the time to put a caucus rule over convictions. Hard choices must eventually be made, and kicking out a member who appears ready to make them only weakens the caucus rather than strengthening it.
Casting shadows during Sunshine Week
Gov. Bill Walker ran on a platform of transparency, so an action by his communications office March 16 that came during the celebration of the Freedom of Information Act known as “Sunshine Week” was doubly ironic.
Our reporter DJ Summers heard there had been a letter sent from a federal agency to Walker regarding upcoming North Pacific Fishery Management Council nominations.
We asked Katie Moritz from our sister paper the Juneau Empire to stop by his office to get a copy. Moritz was told by Ty Keltner, the communications coordinator for Walker’s office, that there was a letter from the U.S. Commerce Department that had been received on Feb. 3.
The only catch was that Summers would have to file a public records request if he wanted to see it. Summers dutifully filed the request March 16 at 4 p.m. We eventually got a response from Walker’s public records specialist Angela Hull that it had been received as we neared press deadline on March 18.
In the meantime, however, we had already gone ahead and asked the ever-helpful Julie Speegle at the Alaska Region of National Marine Fisheries Service on March 17 if she could get us a copy from the Commerce Department. Less than a day later, Speegle had connected us with the Maryland headquarters and we had a copy of the letter signed Jan. 28 without any help from Walker’s administration.
And, we’ll add, without having to fill out a Freedom of Information Act request.
Turns out the letter Keltner withheld from a simple inquiry was essentially a form letter from NMFS outlining the process for nominating candidates and a deadline for when materials had to be received. A big nothingburger that contained little we didn’t already know about the nomination process.
Having time to respond, search and retrieve a large amount of records is a reasonable provision in the Alaska Public Records Act. However, what the governor’s communications office pulled by withholding an innocuous letter they acknowledged existed and when it was received hardly lives up to Walker’s claimed commitment to transparency.
The only thing transparent about this action is how trifling it was.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].