If you want to know why Alaska’s budget is out of control, you have to shine a light on the indefensibly corrupt process that leads conservative legislators to sell their votes to Juneau even before they are sworn into office. Welcome to the Alaska Hunger Games.
Each year, Alaska’s districts send their representatives to the capital, and most of those legislators offer themselves in tribute to the Republican Majority Caucus. The cost is the same each year; writing a blank check pledging their district’s vote in favor of whatever budget gets cooked up in closed-door meetings of House and Senate Caucus Leadership. If you thought that the Open Meetings Act applied to all government organizations, think again. The legislature passed a law requiring itself to apply the Open Meetings Act to itself. That was in 1994. It’ll get around to it—someday.
Under the process that has held sway over the legislature for years, good people find themselves casting their vote for absolutely terrible things, and they do it even before they are sworn into office. The budget isn’t the only blank check that legislators have been expected to write in recent years. They are also asked to write a blank check for so-called “procedural votes”, votes that we are told aren’t supposed to matter. But they do matter!
In the last special session, Sen. Wielechowski called for a joint session to consider overriding the governor’s veto of the PFD, of education funding, of snowmobile trails, of oil tax credits, and other items. Majority leadership decided that they didn’t want to have a joint session. Unbelievably, every single Republican senator present voted against pursuing the special session. That was a “procedural vote”. What happens under this system if legislators instead cast their vote for the constituents they represent? Rep. Dahlstrom cast such a vote as an Eagle River legislator. In her case, the majority caucus proposed to spend funds invested in the permanent fund. After conducting a survey and finding that 80% of her constituents opposed spending any money from the permanent fund (yes, even from small side accounts that few even know exist), she voted against it.
For voting to represent the will of her conservative district, she was summarily ostracized by the Republican Caucus, staff she hired were let go, her membership in the caucus was revoked, and committees she had been working on were told that representation from her district was no longer needed. You see, in addition to writing a blank check on the budget and writing a blank check on whatever “procedural votes” caucus leadership puts forward, you must be willing to do still one more thing. In order to perpetuate the system, you must be willing to hack off another Republican legislator at the knees (politically speaking of course) when they break ranks and vote with their constituents, their conscience, and conservative principles over and against the caucus.
Most recently, and dramatically, the caucus collided with Rep. Reinbold, but it has also had notable collisions with many others over the years, including Sen. Ogan, Sen. Ward, Rep. Lynn, Rep. Kohring, Rep. Vezey, and of course Rep. Dahlstrom. In most all of these cases, it was the “Republican” Caucus demanding that its Republican legislators be “Less Republican!” And therein lies the problem with even calling it a “Republican Majority Caucus”. It isn’t, and the current House Majority Caucus doesn’t even include Republican in its title. Perhaps this explains why the caucus stood in the way of voting to override the governor’s veto of the PFD.
You see, Clive Thomas, former political science professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, had it right: “In Alaska, the party doesn’t matter, but the caucus does.” Let that sink in a minute. In Alaska, legislators have historically pledged their support to a caucus, instead of a political party. This is why Republican legislators did not fight to override the PFD, or even put their opponents on record supporting the raid on the PFD this year. This is why government spending wasn’t cut in Alaska this year. In the midst of the current budget crisis, government spending actually grew!!!
Through extravagant spending, the caucus—long ago—set itself on a collision course with the PFD. Now that we have arrived, that collision is unavoidable. While every man, woman and child in Alaska is getting a $1,300 haircut this year, the capitol is currently facing a lawsuit for improperly using taxes to build a man-made island along a causeway to a statue. The capitol has its priorities, and those priorities are not shared by those of us who live in the Mat-Su Valley. Perhaps that is why Alaskans have voted repeatedly to move the capitol, and our legislators, back home where they belong.
After all, what is the purpose of even having elections in the Mat-Su, when the truly important decisions (like the budget) will be made by people from Juneau and Anchorage, and your role as a legislator is simply to rubberstamp the outcome? I spent twelve years wearing the Army uniform, and never once did I have to demonstrate such blind obedience as our incumbent legislators have grown accustomed to, certainly not as a military officer. It is a corrupt and failed political arrangement, and if our Republican legislators had been men and women of courage they would have jettisoned it long before now.
When a caucus demands greater allegiance than a legislator’s own constituents, it has defeated the very purpose of representative government. Those who have spent nearly ten years supporting such an arrangement, as my opponent Rep. Keller has, have set aside the interests of the people they were elected to represent. As an elected representative, there is no excuse for that. And as a state it is abundantly clear that we cannot afford it.
Alaska doesn’t need a Hunger Games. It needs representatives who will transparently put the interests of their constituents above their own. To her credit, Rep. Reinbold has stood firm these past two years. I hope to see her still standing firm two years from now. And there will be others standing with her. I hope to be one of them, and other candidates I’ve spoken with have echoed the same. The consequences this year are deadly serious. Either the caucus system (with its blank checks, closed-door meetings and out of control budgets) meets its end, or we will no longer be able to call it the permanent fund. After all, once the government gets its hands on it there won’t be anything permanent about it.