The Year in KTOO News: Spotlight on state government

Sen. Natasha Von Imhof, R-Anchorage, stands to speak on the floor of the Alaska Senate on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021 but is told she must remain seated per the health mitigation rules in place at the Capitol. (Peter Segall/Juneau Empire, via AP, Pool)

Lawmakers spent a record amount of time at the capitol this year trying to agree on a budget.

The Alaska Legislature convened in January, during Alaska’s first wave of COVID-19. Plexiglass barriers were installed between lawmakers’ desks, and there were no visitors in the galleries.

Lawmakers had to get tested for COVID-19 a few days a week and had to wear masks in the chambers. Sen. Lora Reinbold, a Republican from Eagle River, refused to comply with any of the safety requirements and was eventually banned from the Capitol. She was later prohibited from flying on Alaska Airlines for refusing to observe the company’s mask mandate and had to find another way to get to work in Juneau after going home to Eagle River. She ended up driving 700 miles and catching the ferry in Haines.

Sen. Jesse Kiehl gets a COVID-19 test on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021, in Juneau, Alaska. Regular testing and daily screening is a requirement for working the state capitol this session. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)
Sen. Jesse Kiehl gets a COVID-19 test on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021, in Juneau, Alaska. Regular testing and daily screening are a requirement for working at the state capitol during the session. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The House of Representatives took almost a month to get organized. And the regular session ended in May with no budget or agreement on an amount for the permanent fund dividend, so lawmakers were called back to a special session.

The budget did not progress even after a second special session, and by then state workers received pink slips because the government couldn’t function without a budget. The shutdown was averted in the final hour and a budget was signed on June 30, but the next day Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed the amount for the PFD that lawmakers had settled on: $525. He called that amount “a joke” and called the Legislature back for a third special session to find more PFD funding.

After a lot of stalled-out negotiations, the final amount for the PFD was announced at the end of September: $1,114. But Gov. Dunleavy called them right back into a fourth special session, asking them to pass funding for an additional permanent fund dividend for the year.

And during that fourth special session, the Legislature set a record for the number of days that it’s been in session in a year — 212. And they were still at an impasse on how to balance the state’s budget in the long term. That session ended with no decisions made. Dunleavy said it would be pointless to call them in for a fifth special session.

All year Dunleavy has been advocating for enshrining the PFD in the state constitution and to lower the state limit on spending. Since those proposals did advance through five legislative sessions, supporters of the amendments started to talk about supporting a constitutional convention. But Vic Fisher, the last surviving delegate of the original convention when Alaska’s constitution was written, said Alaska politics currently lacks something the delegates had back then: unity.

Vic Fischer points to his signature on Alaska’s constitution at his Anchorage home on November 3, 2021. (Photo by Lori Townsend/Alaska Public Media)

“This is about as bad a time to have a new convention as there ever could be or could have been because we are so divided as a people,” he said.

Earlier this month, the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. board of trustees voted to remove Executive Director Angela Rodell from her position. There was no public discussion of why the board removed her, prompting lawmakers to ask for more information. Rodell had led the corporation since 2015. Under her leadership, the Permanent Fund has grown from $51 billion to $81 billion. Also, the fund began paying for most of the state budget. 

Back in September, Rodell and some of the trustees differed over the corporation’s proposed budget, and Rodell asked them whether they were committed to the permanent fund’s independence. Rodell has also publicly advocated for following the rules that limit the state’s annual draw from the fund’s earnings, but Dunleavy has said that the state can afford to draw more than that limit, and wants to pay larger permanent fund dividends.

The Legislature meets again on January 18, 2022, and will pick up the budget debate again.

KTOO is looking back at 2021 through the stories that had the widest and strongest impact on the community. Read about the pandemic’s second year in Juneau, stories about justice in Juneau, the cruise industry’s return to Juneau, or about the city’s avalanche risk.

Jennifer Pemberton

Managing Editor, KTOO

I bring stories from the community into the KTOO newsroom so that all of our reporting matters. I want to hear my community’s struggles and its wins reflected in our coverage. Does our reporting reflect your experience in Juneau?

Like what you just read? KTOO news stories are member supported. Support your community news source today. Donate to KTOO.

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