Politics: We Regret To Inform You

(Author’s Note: This is an excerpt from an unedited transcript that contains typos, grammatical errors and an occasional bad word. This the sixth in a series published every Friday.)

Introduction
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In one aspect, the Twenty Second Alaska State House of Representatives looked more promising than the previous two years. Aside from a lack of committee assignments, a new wave of freshman were elected to the house, most of whom had campaigned on pragmatic solutions to the state’s fiscal woes. In an ironic twist, the only Republican house members who failed to get re-elected were those who staunchly opposed reasonable solutions to balancing the state’s budget. Both Jerry Sanders and Ramona Barnes were soundly dispatched by opponents who promised a new approach to solving the budget challenges.

While the wreckage of the ill-fated September 1999 vote was still visible in the rearview mirror, what we had done was essentially begin a very difficult conversation with Alaskans. Although the plan failed miserably, for those of us that got re-elected after supporting and advocating for its passage, it was liberating to know that leading on the issue of new revenue sources was not an election death sentence.

In fact, even though my district voted down the 1999 plan with the same fervor as the rest of the state, when I went door to door most of my constituents said they supported the plan. While finding this hard to believe due the beating it took at the ballot box in my district, it showed me that even if they voted against it, or didn’t vote at all which was more likely, they wanted to appear supportive of finding the right equation to solving the puzzle. At every doorstep I’d use the same refrain when talking with my constituents about the state’s structural budget challenge; it’s a dollar today or ten dollars tomorrow, and it’s your choice.

With the 2000 election cycle came newly elected house members with names like Guess, Lancaster, Scalzi, Stevens, Hayes, Wilson and Crawford, all whom showed an immediate interest in becoming involved with the Fiscal Policy Caucus. Traditionally freshman lawmakers avoid from jumping right in the middle of a discussion about taxes and using permanent fund earnings to fill the yawning budget gap, but they did not hesitate.

The Fiscal Policy Caucus began meeting as soon as the session convened. We began holding hearings at night and during lunch, due to the fact it wasn’t a sanctioned committee, and meeting rooms were only available during off hours. We outlined a comprehensive strategy for engaging stakeholders, proposing legislation for cost savings as well as identifying potential new revenue sources. The goal set forth was a two-year plan that included setting the table the first year, followed by a push for legislative action the second year. The daunting challenge with the two-year strategy was that the second was an election year.

The philosophy was that the legislature needed to show Alaskans that we were serious about changing the way we did business in order to gain credibility for tapping new revenue sources. Several of the caucus members filed legislation that would have altered everything from how often the legislature drafts the budget, to the length of session. All of these pieces of legislation were designed to improve efficiency and lower costs while proving to the public the legislature was leading on trying to contain costs at the same time we were asking for permission to tap permanent fund earnings.

On February 12, 2001, I was granted a State Affairs Committee hearing on HB123 that would mandate all frequent flyer miles obtained while on state business would be the property of the state. I introduced the legislation after an experience I had at the Alaska Airlines ticket office in the Baranof Hotel.

One day during lunch, I had walked down the hill to purchase my ticket home for the weekend. As I was entering the ticket office, I passed a state commissioner on his way out who clearly had a disgusted look on his face. When I stepped to the counter I overheard the two agents bitterly complaining about how he was the latest in a string of state employees who were constantly demanding redemption of mileage certificates for overseas travel.

HB123 was projected to save around $2 million per year on an annual air travel budget of $15 million, however between lawmakers who didn’t want to give up their miles, and unions complaining about a loss of a benefit, the bill died a quick death in committee. When I made the rounds of committee members to seek their support for moving the bill out of committee, one member summed up the entire debate; I fly a lot on state business and I like the miles and the upgrades.

During committee testimony I noted that I didn’t intend  any negative commentary on  state travel  or  those who  travel on  state  business, but felt it was a legitimate topic with the state’s current fiscal situation. Other states including Oregon and California, already had strict prohibitions on the use of bonuses earned  while on state paid travel to be redeemed.

One of the things you learn in the legislature is that when lawmakers are trying to preserve their benefits, the arguments can be mind-numbing. With HB123, one of these examples was provided by Fairbanks Representative Janette James, who told me prior to the bill being heard in committee that she was opposed.  In committee, James argued that the mileage awards belong to the flyer, not the one who pays for the ticket. “You don’t get the mileage until you get  on  the airplane,”  James stated.    “And then you get the mileage because  you’re on  the airplane,  not because  you paid  for the ticket.  So that’s a difference in philosophy.”

I took the bait.

“When you pay for a ticket and you take that flight, you accrue frequent  flyer miles,” I responded.  But when  you redeem those  frequent flyer miles for a ticket, they  don’t give you frequent flyer miles on a free ticket, even though you are clearly on the plane. So, therefore, the basis for awarding the miles is buying the ticket.” James was silent. The rest of the committee testimony was from a collection of employee groups and administrators arguing that it would be too expensive to enforce. Not even a glowing endorsement in the conservative Voice of the Times, could give HB123 any spark. It died in committee.

On March 29, 2001 the second piece of legislation that was designed to save cost was also heard in the State Affairs Committee. HJR3 was a proposed constitutional amendment that would have limited session to 90 days, and allowed for committee work to be done in lawmaker’s home districts. Under the proposal newly  elected  members  would  be  sworn into office mid-December, and the Juneau session would  begin  in the  second week  of February.   One of the main provisions was the authorization of interim committees, so after  members are  sworn in, committees could meet on pre-filed legislation.

The intent was to bring committee meetings to legislators’ home districts so there could be more constituent contact.  It also would allow hearings in the areas affected by particular legislation. There was no question that it what it would bring greater efficiency to the legislature on how it uses it’s time in Juneau. It was also designed to foster a more citizen legislature because uprooting family and careers for a 120 session in Juneau acts as  a  deterrent for  younger candidates running  for  political  office.

The projected savings from HJR3 was only about $1.5 million, or roughly $30,000 a day for every day the legislature was not in session. Other states with much larger populations and budgets were doing their legislative work in consistently shorter sessions, some as short as 60 days.

Look, I’m going to be brutally honest, the arguments against shortening the legislative session are baseless whining from those who operate under the delusion that a longer session means a better legislative product.  First, I think history looks unfavorably on that contention considering what Alaskans were receiving for their investment in a 120 day session. Second, the legislature is like a six-year-old getting ready for bed, they’ll take all night if you let them. Third and most importantly, nobody, nobody, wastes more time than legislators during session.

My first year I was stunned at the glacial pace of both the committee process, and that we didn’t hold daily floor sessions until almost half way through the session. This in a year when oil was ten dollars a barrel and the state was facing a billion dollar budget gap. Every year the entire legislative process was based on having leverage at the end of session, the horse trading,  the hostage taking. It was as predictable as the lack of substance from many veteran lawmakers.

During my first year I was a member of the Labor & Commerce Committee and the Community & Regional Affairs Committee with fellow freshman Lisa Murkowski. About two months into session we were walking up the stairs after an afternoon committee meeting. As we ascended the stairs toward our fourth floor offices, Murkowski turned to me and asked, “Do you ever get the feeling in committee that we’re the only members who actually read our bill packets?” That’s one of the many reasons why when I hear veteran lawmakers argue session needs to be longer to allow for proper deliberation, I shake my head.

During the second and final hearing of HJR3, I pointed out to the committee that we were currently on day 80 of the legislative session and the only item on the daily calendar that day were citations. I argued again there was plenty of room for efficiency and greater constituent interaction, but it fell on deaf ears. The committee flat-out rejected all of the arguments for a restructured legislative session basically claiming that the only way to do it is the way the legislature had always done it.

The bill died, but not before I warned the committee in my final comments that unless  legislators continued  to discuss this issue, “We’re going to  allow the public  [via the initiative process] to make decisions that we really should be … making.”

Five years later, Alaskans via the initiative process, voted to limit the legislative session to ninety days.

One of my favorite new lawmakers was Fairbanks Democrat Joe Hayes who was elected after his predecessor decided not to seek re-election. Hayes was similar to my colleague Richard Foster, always in a good mood, always able to find humor in any situation, and always ready to defend his friends.

The notes Hayes would pass to me on the house floor were epic ice breakers. “They’re not going to let you play with their toys,” Hayes wrote after I broke with the majority on an amendment vote. “They don’t even let me see the toys anymore,” I replied. After the press had run yet another front page article on recalcitrant lawmakers trying to avoid fiscal solutions which included criticism from me regarding the stalemate, Hayes sent me a note joking that he had been hearing grumbling from lawmakers about the article all morning.

“Not only is next year an election year, but a gubernatorial election year, and everyone in this building is running for governor,” I was quoted in the Juneau Empire. “Not much love for Rep. Halcro this beautiful morning in the state’s capitol,” Hayes note read about the reaction to the quote. “My mother tells me she says a prayer for me when she gets the morning paper from the porch in case I’m on the front page,” I responded. Hayes quickly sent a reply, “You need more than prayers my friend.”

Hayes was part of two memorable conversations while I was in the legislature. After a Fiscal Policy Caucus hearing one evening, I stayed behind in the committee room to chat with Hayes and Ashley Reed, a longtime lobbyist. “The leadership thought they could silence you by shutting you out, but now they have no idea what to do,” Reed said. Hayes never short of a quick response chimed in, “When you have nothing to lose, you have nothing to lose.”

After the conversation I thought back to the house organizational meeting months earlier when I was punished, and then again to Rep. Foster’s comments in the hallway about idle hands. This was simple political history repeating itself. The lesson had been contextualized by former President Lyndon B. Johnson when he said about J. Edgar Hoover, “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”In politics it’s always about filling the vacuum. Any vacuum.

But my most memorable experience with Hayes occurred in my office one evening during the fight to bring a fiscal package to the floor. The Fiscal Policy Caucus was pressuring Speaker Porter to allow us to bring a package of new revenues to the floor for a vote. With enough Republican and Democrats supporting the plan, the house leadership was risking a floor revolt that they feared they’d lose.The mood on the house side was incredibly tense.

As I sat with Hayes in my office discussing the cinematic masterpiece Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, in walked Rep. Peggy Wilson. The soft spoken Petersburg Republican looked like she’d seen a ghost. Wilson who had been active in the Fiscal Policy Caucus, was looking for Rep. Murkowski. “Is Lisa still here?” she asked in a voice that sounded like she was seeking absolution.”I think she left for the evening,” I replied. “Is everything okay?” Hayes interjected.

“I just received a visit from Senator Pete Kelly in my office,” she began. Kelly had stopped by her office to tell her that she shouldn’t be supporting the fiscal plan, and that it would come at a political cost. He warned that if she voted for the fiscal plan and it passed, Republicans would lose in the election and the Democrats would take control of the legislature. Kelly then went on to say, “If that happens they be killing them babies,” Wilson recounted in her homespun accent. A transparent attempt by Kelly to play to Wilson’s re-election fears, as wells as her pro-life beliefs.

Kelly, a conservative from Fairbanks, was one of those I always found difficult to stomach because of his sheer hypocrisy. For my entire term I listened to lawmakers like Kelly, Kohring, Ogan, and Coghill, lecture Alaskans on the need for less dependency on state government, while they personally were becoming more dependent on state government. Several got elected on a platform of term limits, but once elected, it took scandals to get them out. Many of these guys have become leeches of the system they decry every election cycle.

This however would end up being one of the more mild threats and out right intimidation members of the fiscal policy caucus would face from conservative lawmakers. A few days later I opened my mail to find a letter from the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics notifying me that an ethics complaint had been filed against me, and an investigation into my conduct was forthcoming.

“Are you fucking kidding me? Are you fucking kidding me?” I screamed as I stood at my desk in disbelief, staring at the opened letter and envelope in my hand. The sudden outburst prompting my staffer Chris Knight to leap for the door in an attempt to keep my words from echoing down the fourth floor hallway. “Are you fucking kidding me?” I screamed once again as the door to office 414 slammed shut.

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