Politicians, at business forum, forecast tensions ahead for the governor and the Legislature

Alaska House Speaker Bryce Edgmon and Senate President Cathy Giessel appeared at a forum with Ben Stevens, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s chief of staff, at the Alaska Chamber’s fall meeting in Girdwood on Tuesday, October 29, 2019. (Photo by Nat Herz / Alaska Public Media)

The next session of the Alaska Legislature is less than three months away. And after a drawn-out fight in Juneau this year, there are still widely differing visions of the state’s future between legislative leaders and Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

At a forum Tuesday at the Alaska Chamber’s fall gathering in Girdwood, Alaska business leaders got a preview of the upcoming session from the House speaker, Senate president and Dunleavy’s chief of staff — and the three speakers sounded eager to work together, though still not ready to put their differences aside.

Last year’s session of the Alaska Legislature did not exactly go smoothly. Lawmakers passed a budget, Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed huge chunks of it, so then the Legislature passed another budget bill, and the governor vetoed big chunks of that, too.

Before the forum got going, the moderator, political consultant Willis Lyford, set the stage with a clip from the movie “The Perfect Storm,” saying the scene of a boat being pummeled by waves accurately summarized the way things went in Juneau earlier this year.

After a few chuckles, the forum, at the fall convention of the Alaska Chamber, quickly got back to business, starting with Lyford asking what could have been done better this year.

Ben Stevens, Dunleavy’s new chief of staff, said the governor could have improved his communication by simply talking more with legislators and constituents.

“More of an open-door policy, I think, is what could have been done better,” Stevens said. “I think he admits that. The governor has taken responsibility for, as he says, his position and his contribution or his part of the dysfunction that occurred.”

Ben Stevens, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s chief of staff, spoke at the forum. (Photo by Nat Herz / Alaska Public Media)

[Related: Ben Stevens left the Alaska Senate under a cloud of the corruption scandal. Now he’s Gov. Dunleavy’s top deputy.]

Both Edgmon, the House Speaker, and Giessel, the Senate president, said they’re encouraged by the appointment of Stevens, a former Senate president who has relationships with lawmakers. The two said they barely interacted with Stevens’ predecessor, Tuckerman Babcock, who previously chaired the Alaska Republican Party.

“We virtually, in the House, had little to no relationship with the governor,” Edgmon said. “I never talked once with his chief of staff; I never met his OMB director, other than on the street.”

Stevens, the chief of staff, said Dunleavy is in a “cooperative mood” to try to work with the Legislature in the upcoming session.

But Edgmon and Giessel were not shy about the fact that lawmakers still are likely to have very different ideas about major issues — on the Permanent Fund dividend, for example, and also on the idea of a spending cap, which is something the chamber has pushed for.

“The legislative branch should not simply rubber stamp what the governor sends to us,” Giessel said. “There should be significant review, and changes made, because we are 60 people representing all of you and very diverse opinions of Alaskans.”

A key question was about the likelihood of an oil-tax bill making it through the Legislature this year, which could have the effect of keeping a separate oil-tax initiative off of the ballot. The participants agreed that it’s pretty unlikely — Dunleavy’s administration is not going to advance anything like that, Stevens said, and it’s probably too big of a project for lawmakers to take on this year, according to Edgmon and Giessel.

One tense moment came at the end when Edgmon took a shot at the chamber’s audience. He said he had some chamber members lobbying him in support of Dunleavy’s proposed deep budget cuts earlier this year — when what would be more helpful is for the group to get behind the Legislature’s plan to use some of the Permanent Fund’s earnings on state government, not just to pay residents dividends.

Alaska House Speaker Bryce Edgmon chided Alaska Chamber members at the end of the forum. (Photo by Nat Herz / Alaska Public Media)

“My ask of you as an organization is not only to, respectfully, be more informed,” he said. “Do what you can to help us pivot. Because we need help.”

After the forum was over, the chamber President Kati Capozzi said Edgmon had mischaracterized and that the chamber supports reducing spending to “sustainable levels.” A prepared statement released by the chamber last year applauded Dunleavy for proposing a budget that matches revenues, and said the chamber “agrees that it’s time for Alaska to live within its means.”