Alaska is facing attempts to fundamentally change how education is funded, change the definition of a medically necessary abortion, and destroy public sector unions in it's biggest city... all at the same time.
For those of you whose knowledge of Alaskan politics doesn’t go beyond Sarah Palin and Mark Begich (although some of you might also remember the Murkowski- Miller- McAdams race that was interesting enough to bring Rachel Maddow up here) might be surprised to learn that for the last two Senate election cycles this solid red state was actually controlled by a bi-partisan coalition of both Democrats and Republicans.
Since the Governor was a Republican and Republicans also dominated the House, this bipartisan coalition blunted Alaska from much of the anti-union and anti-abortion legislation that has swept through Republican controlled states over the last four years. However, due to redistricting, this election cycle 19 of 20 Senate seats were voted on, and while the country was celebrating the re-election of President Obama, the 10 Democrat 10 Republican tie was replaced with a 13-7 Republican majority when the new Senate convened on January 21st.
This new Senate is the first since a mini-coup within the state-level Republican Party left the Joe Miller/ Ron Paul wing of the party in control and the traditional Republicans wondering exactly what had happened. (It is also the first time the Republicans have controlled the Senate since the break-up of the aptly named Corrupt Bastards Club. That has nothing to do with what’s going on currently, but I like bringing up as often as possible that less than 10 years ago the corruption in this state was so brazen they handed out hats printed with Corrupt Bastards Club on them to each other).
There was much name-calling and complaint-filing by both sides after the coup, but the event illustrates the differences between the two camps within the Alaskan Republican Party, and the mindset of the newly elected senators; they wanted to shake things up the way they had seen things be shaken up in the Lower 48 these last few years. After a slow start, they have recently hit their stride, introducing bills that would change the constitutional restrictions on education funding, and another that would change the definition of what constituted a medically necessary abortion.
The first bill, Senate Joint Resolution 9, would put a ballot measure in front of voters, with the Legislative Branch’s seal of approval, asking voters to amend the State Constitution. Currently, the Alaska State Constitution explicitly prohibits the use of public money to fund private or religious schools and, under the guise of school choice, the Joint Resolution will remove that language.
The next bill, Senate Bill 49, seeks to change the definition of what a medically necessary abortion is. If an abortion is deemed as medically necessary; either endangering the mothers life or resulting from rape or incest, Medicaid and State Funds can be used to terminate the pregnancy. However, State Senator Coghill wants to lay out a set list of conditions that made an abortion medically necessary in order to save the mothers life, as well as add a caveat to the definition, whereby an abortion that is caused by rape or incest will only be considered medically necessary if the rape, sexual assault or incestuous act was promptly reported to law enforcement.
In a state with a consistently high number of reported sexual assaults, and an even higher number that go unreported, as well as even higher numbers in Alaska Native and rural communities that sometimes don’t even have their own fulltime police force, it should come as no surprise that the pushback against this has been vocal in the week since it’s introduction. However, Senator Coghill decided to double down, asking, “Why wouldn’t somebody (promptly report rape or incest)?” This statement raises the question if whether someone so lacking in insight into the mindset of a sexual assault victim should be allowed to redefine something as essential as what a medically necessary abortion is.
Even after the introduction of these bills, there was still some hope among people who followed the legislative process, due to the fact that not all the members of the old coalition had been defeated and the remaining members were still in positions of power in the senate committees and could, it was hoped, inject some sanity into the process. However, the new Senate President also recognized this possibility and decided a law that asked Alaskans to fundamentally change how education in the state would be funded didn’t need to be discussed by the Senate’s Education Committee. So, in an unprecedented move he withdrew the bill from discussion by the Committee after he himself had introduced it into said Committee for discussion. Coincidentally, the Education Committee is chaired by Senator Gary Stevens who had been the Senate President under the coalition. The same MO was followed with Senate Bill 49. The bill will not even receive a discussion in the Health and Human Services committee.
The push back is just beginning, since the bills were only introduced last week, and hopefully it will gain momentum. However, the fight that is brewing in Anchorage might overshadow these two bills. Mayor Dan Sullivan has introduced a bill that would, among other things, strip collective bargaining rights from all public sector unions including firefighters, police officers and teachers. The same bill would also look to privatize 911 dispatchers and give all power in stalled labor negotiations to the Assembly, rather than third party arbitrators. The latest budget also includes$25 million in cuts to education for... no good reason.
If you want something else to pay attention to (and really who doesn’t want to obsessively follow Alaskan politics) pay attention to the effort torecall Senator Lindsey Holmes. She ran as a Democrat, took money as a Democrat and accepted Democrat volunteers to work on her campaign. Then, before she was even sworn in, she switched her party allegiance for a simple seat on the finance committee.
I have seen how Daily Kos has rallied around Wisconsin and Michigan in their time of need. Now Alaska is facing the same sort of legislation at both the local and state level. While I recognize it is a tougher battle that needs to be fought here than in those traditionally blue states I hope that if some national attention is placed on these bills, and the process being used to pass them, the tone will be forced to be mellowed if nothing else. I will try to keep you updated if anything changes.