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Big Last-Minute Wins: Corporate Campaign $$$, Foster Care, Energy Efficient Buildings.

They Were, Ahem, Never In Doubt.

Dear Friends & Neighbors:

The 90 Day Legislative Session ended Monday at 12:30 a.m.  Ninety days from the start, plus 37 minutes that no one besides Sen. Con Bunde is counting. 

Some of the most important efforts only passed in the last 72 hours (and 37 minutes), which makes me think I might just skip the slog, stress, and battle of the first 87 days next year.  If you’re OK with that.  Basically, I knew all along that everything would come together.  The constant late night strategy sessions to gather the needed votes, to help create public pressure, and research to make our case as well as we could were pretty much just show.  One might make the case that my staff Rose and Dave, and the great allies we have on so many issues in the Legislature, and I pulled a few out of the hat. 

Regardless, the state’s a lot better off than I thought it would be during the first 2,088 hours of this year’s 2,160 and 37 minute session.   Here’s a rundown of the last minute victories, and a few other things that - hiss, boooo, hiss - we couldn’t get the votes on.  On the latter, I learned from this year’s national health care debate that I’m allowed to lose all historical perspective, and abuse my 1st Amendment rights by calling everyone I disagreed on those issues with a “Nazi” or “Communist”.  Though, if you don’t mind, I’m still a little uncomfortable with that.

Corporate Campaign $$$$: They Can’t Hide It

In January the U.S. Supreme Court’s most radical five Justices issued a ruling that threatened to ruin our political system.  Arguing that “Free Speech” was all about how much money one wanted to use to buy misleading political ads, they said unlimited corporation, union and issue group expenditures on ads for and against candidates and ballot initiatives were OK.  They reversed the ban on corporate campaign donations.  We’ll have to wait for a better Supreme Court to reverse this ruling.  But in the meantime a group of us got together to try to figure out what we could legally do to limit the abuse of unlimited corporate campaign money. 

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We settled on an approach we learned about from the State of Washington.  Exxon can still put millions into trying to deceive you, but you have  right to know about it.  We decided that an ad should not just have the name of the fake group the corporations and wealthy donors put together to promote the ad.  You’ve heard the names of the “groups” pharmaceutical, oil and other companies use to hide their identity.  Like “Great Americans For Jobs” or “Swift Boat Veterans For America”.  So we said the ad should also state the names of the BIGGEST DONORS to the front group.  How about a little truth in advertising?

I, my House Democratic Colleagues, Republican Rep. Bob Lynn, and Senator Hollis French put bills together, and Senator French had the most success (masterfully and diligently) navigating his through the legislative process. 

For my part – I bugged the bill sponsors to add a provision that required the names of the big donors to be read aloud on TV ads.  An audible disclaimer.  Under current Alaska law there was no requirement of any audible mention of who is paying for a TV ad.   So we worked with Hollis to add a provision that will require the following audible statement in every TV and radio ad: “The ad was paid for by (happy fake group name).  The biggest contributors are Exxon, Conoco and British Petroleum (or whoever the 3 biggest donors are).” This issue became the nub of the debate in the last two weeks of session.  We hope when viewers hear the truth about who’s paying for the ad, it will have the effect those drug ads have.  “Propecia will grow you lots of hair.  Side effects include the possibility you will die or lose your genitals.  You might also grow a big pimple in the middle of your forehead.”

Enter Rep. Jay Ramras.  Last week in the House Judiciary Committee Rep. Ramras (R-Fairbanks), the Committee Chair, deleted the audible disclaimer, claiming that he didn’t want someone who paid for an ad to eat up five seconds telling the public the truth about who was paying for it.  He thought it would be awful for viewers to be told who was really paying for the ad.  Jay was happy with a small print written disclaimer on the TV screen he knew no one would read.  Hmmm. 

After the vote Hollis and I sat down and strategized with Judiciary Committee members Rep. Lindsey Holmes and Rep. Max Gruenberg, who offered an amendment to re-instate the audio disclaimer.  Reps. Bob Lynn, Bob Herron and Carl Gatto worked with them to get that reversed in the Judiciary Committee.

On Friday the bill was heard in the House Finance Committee, where an amendment was again introduced to remove the audible disclaimer. Rep. Mike Doogan and I worked hard to try to stop the amendment, and thought we had the votes.  But on a committee with seven majority members, and only 4 of us in the House Democratic minority, we lost on a close 6-5 vote - with majority member Rep. Reggie Joule joining me, Mike, and Reps. Woodie Salmon and Neal Foster.

That left a showdown on the House Floor late in the evening on Sunday, the last day of session.  We organized a bipartisan amendment, and talked to as many legislators as possible before the vote – as did the folks on the other side of the issue.  The amendment, sponsored by me, Bob Lynn, Paul Seaton and Lindsey Holmes, passed 23-17.  We didn’t know we had the votes until seeing them on the voting board. 

And – then – Rep. Max Gruenberg saved the day after we thought we had won.  If it weren’t for his little-noticed role, we would have lost even after winning the amendment.  Here’s what Max did.

When the vote came up, after we amended the bill to reinsert the audible disclaimer, the Chief Clerk read the title of the bill we were about to vote on.  But she read the version that didn’t include the amendment.  If no one noticed this, we would have passed the version that didn’t include the audible disclaimer.  Most legislators don’t notice details like this  Max did.  So, in the end, he saved the day.  And, by the way – Max was an important part of the effort to keep this provision in the bill all session.

The Greening of State Buildings and Schools: They’ll Be Energy Efficient

The Legislature made good, green progress this year too.  I wrote about some of that recently.  Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Haines) and I co-sponsored amendments to require that construction and retrofits of state buildings and schools comply with energy efficiency standards.  It will save us money, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce the demand for natural gas and diesel.   We think this was great progress.

We added the state building energy efficiency provision to Senators Bill Wielechowski and Lesil McGuire’s energy bill, SB 220.  Rep. Thomas and I won on our amendment in the House Finance Committee last week by a 6-5 vote.  On Friday House members tried to strip this provision from the bill on a House Floor vote, but we prevailed there, after debate, 27-13. 

This provision was previously in my and Rep. Thomas’ energy legislation, and was in prior versions of legislation by both the House and Senate Energy Committees.  Sen. Wielechowski’s office did great work helping us get this provision back in the bill.  And House Energy Committee Co-Chairs Charisse Millett and Bryce Edgmon, who supported the provision, had it in their own bill, and worked with us on it over the past two years, were crucial in the effort to keep the provision in the bill during the Friday House Floor vote. 

Rep. Thomas and I had an easier time passing an amendment Saturday to Senator Lyman Hoffman’s bill bolstering Alaska’s rural school construction efforts.  That bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Kevin Meyer.  With Sen. Hoffman and Meyer’s support, Rep. Thomas and I co-sponsored an amendment in the House Finance Committee Saturday to require that school construction comply with smart energy efficiency rules.  That amendment passed unanimously as part of Senator Hoffman and Meyer’s SB 237.

Foster Care Efforts & Fire Alarms     

This one meant a lot to me.  It was bi-partisan.  It will make a lot of lives better.  Here’s the link to what we wrote recently.  Our bill, HB 126, and the bi-partisan budget amendments on foster care, all finally passed on the last evening of session. 

The bill brought one funny story with it.  Well, it’s funny now, anyway. 

With time running out in session, starting last week I still needed to get my foster care bill through the House Finance Committee, a House floor vote, the Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Floor.  I didn’t have much time to spare.  So, when I finally got my turn to present the bill at the House Finance Committee last week, I was eager to make things go quickly.  The committee was a half hour from adjourning.  A few sentences into the hearing the building fire alarm went off.  Then I had to deal with a few obstacles regarding legal language in the bill, which almost stalled the bill when the committee reconvened.  Fortunately, we had all our ducks in a row to deal with that. 

On Thursday the bill had made it to the Senate Finance Committee, which had a half hour before it was to adjourn.  As I sat down to present it. . . . the building fire alarm went off, again. 

We evacuated the building, and tongue in cheek rumors started to spread.  My stress wasn’t lost on too many of my colleagues, who gave me equal parts empathy and ribbing.  In case you are wondering, there was only one other fire alarm in all of 2010.  Two of the three occurred during the foster care bill presentations.  Funny now.  Not funny then.

Cruise Ship Companies Win; College Aid Done Wastefully

On Sunday the legislature voted to scale back the cruise ship head tax from $46.50 to $34 per passenger.  I voted against the bill, and to uphold the 2006 voter head tax initiative.  Cruise ship representatives were very clear that the tax rollback won’t bring more ships back to Alaska.  They wanted the money, but offered no meaningful commitments in exchange.  The evidence on the subject didn’t justify the tax rollback.  Cruise passengers are down in Alaska because of the greatest economic downturn in recent American history.  A $15-$30 difference to a passenger who pays $3,000 - $6,000 for a cruise, travel and expenses isn’t going to change the number of passengers who come to Alaska.  The cruise ship lobbyists admitted that.

The college aid bill that passed was a mixed bag.  I tried to add in a provision allowing college and job training aid for people who need financial help.  Alaska has the second worst needs-based aid program in the nation.  Keeping people out of college and job training just because they have no money isn’t a great idea. 

The bill that passed allows aid to those who take three to four years of math, language and science, and get As, Bs and Cs.  The problem with the bill is that many rural school districts don’t offer these courses, and that many youth, who excel but get a GED, or don’t have the family support to get them to take the right courses, will be left behind.

I proposed a mix of merit and need-based aid.  But spending $20 million on a plan that leaves so many Alaskans behind was a poor substitute for a comprehensive bill that spent Alaska’s money more efficiently.  I like rewarding merit.  But millions of dollars of the Governor’s aid plan will go to “C” students who don’t need the money.  I want to help students, including C students, many of whom have worked hard.  But not with lots of state aid when their families earn high enough incomes that they don’t need the help.    

Money doesn’t grow on trees.  Giving state money to youth who don’t need it, in place of helping those who do, is poor policy.  We have agreed to form a summer task force on aid, and possible changes to the bill, and I have applied to be a member.

That’s All Folks.

I’ll be back in town Wednesday or Thursday.  I hope all’s well.  Let me know, as always, if there’s anything I can do.

Best,

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