Can Alaska Lawmakers Break The Gridlock?

The Legislature has been in special session for ten days, and held a half dozen budget hearings. On the other issues lawmakers have been called back for — Medicaid expansion and a sexual abuse prevention program — there have been zero meetings. The special session has mainly been characterized by gridlock. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez looks at one way to break it.

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If you’ve been watching the Legislature the past few weeks, things have been less West Wing and more Twilight Zone.

With the gridlock between the Republican majority and Democratic minority, the legislative branch and the executive branch, little has been accomplished. The same questions get asked on the state of the budget, and the same answers are given.

“I can’t say I’m an insider and know what’s going on, but as far as the public is aware, they’re not doing anything to break the impasse,” says attorney Douglas Mertz.

Mertz is a mediator with an office just a block away from the Capitol building (“It’s within shouting distance”). Mertz has been following the legislative session, and wondering why lawmakers have not reached a deal to close out their work.

“They’re ripe for some kind of intervention, like public policy mediation,” says Mertz.

While negotiation meetings have taken place between legislative leaders and the governor, there has not been a formal structure with a clear, mutually agreeable path to a resolution.

Mertz says there could be some merit in bringing in a third party to help guide the key players. And there’s precedent.

“Things have been done in other states,” says Mertz. “In Illinois, for instance, a few years ago they had a big issue that the legislature found intractable about telecommunications policy.”

So, they brought an outsider in to mediate between the stakeholders and come up with a solution.

“The legislature enacted it almost unanimously,” says Mertz. “It was a real turnaround.”

Mertz says if he were mediating, he would get the leaders of the Republican majority and the Democratic minority in the same room, with plans to bring in the governor’s office at a later point. He would lay out some parameters.

“Well, one of the ground rules would have to be: Stop blaming the other guys,” says Mertz.

As in, no attacks via news releases or press conferences, and no Twitter bashing. The idea would be to focus on the policies instead of the politics.

“Break down all the big issues into small discrete issues, get them to think about what are the blockages here, and how we can get around them,” says Mertz. “Can we engage in some blue-sky thinking about different types of resolutions that we haven’t thought of before?”

Mertz would also ask them to consider the costs of not reaching an agreement.

In this case, those costs involve the literal expenses of keeping the Legislature operating, which can be as high as $30,000 for each day of special session. There’s the risk of government shutdown and damaging Alaska’s credit rating, if an agreement to fund state government for a whole year cannot be reached.

With Medicaid expansion, Mertz says there’s the loss of federal dollars that would pay for the program right now, as well as the human cost of poor people not getting health insurance.

Mertz has a few other ideas, if legislators are curious.

“I don’t know that I’m the right person,” Mertz says with a laugh. “But if I can help out, I’d certainly be happy to.”

And as far as his rates?

“They can afford me,” Mertz chuckles. “Don’t worry about it.”

Mertz says the Legislature could ask the state’s chief justice to appoint a mediator, if they’re looking for a neutral party. But he thinks some sort of conflict resolution could be valuable at this point — after all, it’s almost always cheaper than the alternative.