The Alaska Legislature has had some difficult problems to deal with this year — a huge budget deficit, marijuana legalization and Medicaid expansion and reform, to name a few. But one of the Legislature’s biggest problems is one that members of the group caused themselves: a widespread perception among the state’s residents that their elected representatives aren’t listening to the public.
It’s a theme that kept popping back up as the session rolled along, on a variety of different issues. After public comment closed on the state operating budget, Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, and Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, moved to reduce education formula funding by 4 percent, introducing an unexpected funding gap of about $47.5 million in state funds to districts across Alaska. The formula funding decrease had not been previously debated or presented as a likely option, and it took residents by surprise.
Even when there has been ample opportunity for the public to weigh in on a decision, it’s not clear the Legislature gave their opinion much weight. In more than a dozen hearings on Medicaid during this year’s session, public comment ran strongly in favor of expanding coverage by accepting federal funds for that purpose. A statewide poll on the issue released by the House majority in late March found Alaskans support Medicaid expansion by nearly a two-to-one ratio. Instead of listening to the people on the issue, legislators inserted language into the state operating budget that would ban Medicaid expansion.
More recently, legislators were openly skeptical of Gov. Bill Walker’s plans to include citizens in budget discussions this summer. “We kind of know what needs to be done,” said Sen. Kelly when state budget director told the Senate Finance Committee about the plan. Sens. Kelly and Dunleavy voiced concerns that more public comment would only lead to more grousing about cuts the Legislature made this session. “Every dollar has a constituency,” Sen. Kelly said.
Some legislators indicated a willingness to find out whether that was true. On Thursday, the Democrat-led minority caucus held an open public comment period after the House Finance Committee announced it would take no action on Medicaid during the special session. What rapidly became apparent was that many members of the public were interested in speaking out on issues such as the state budget, Medicaid and education — more than 100 people lined up to testify in Anchorage and Fairbanks. What was also clear was it wasn’t just people crying out for money. Many people did speak in support of more funding for education and Medicaid expansion, but others spoke in support of cuts the Legislature made and were hesitant about expanding Medicaid when issues with billing vendor Xerox have yet to be resolved. It was a broad spectrum of views that reflect the diversity of Alaskans’ political opinions. To be fair, there is a public-relations motive in appearing to be more open to listening to the public, and anyone who has been in politics long knows it. But there’s also a real value in not assuming you know what people want or need and asking them instead.
The culprit in legislators’ skepticism to engage the public on matters of great import seems to be partisanship. The majority caucus’ refusal to seriously consider the revenue side of the state’s budget picture defies mathematics, and legislators’ talking points on Medicaid expansion mirrored the gulf between parties that has poisoned dialogue in Washington, D.C. It took a few years longer for the polarization to take place in Juneau than it did on the national stage, but moderates have been pushed out of meaningful roles in the Legislature. Ideologues and power brokers rule the stage.
As matters stand, Alaska is heading for a government shutdown, and caucus leadership appears willing to let that happen over the objection of the state’s people.
If one were to ask the state’s residents, they would likely be disgusted by the legislative gridlock. They might even be able to suggest a compromise that would keep the state working. But for that to happen, someone would have to listen.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,