Monday, November 14, 2016

What today's ADN story on the 'Musk Ox Coalition' misses ...

In an article in today's Alaska Dispatch News, political reporter Nat Herz discusses the central legislative role being assumed by five representatives -- members of the so-called "Musk Ox Coalition" -- who caucused with the Republican-led House Majority last session, but who are shifting to a largely Democrat majority this session.  The Musk Ox revolt: How the Alaska House flipped from Republican control for the first time in two decades

While Herz's story does a good job going back to the origins of the Coalition at the end of the 2015 session, it noticeably leaves out any mention of one key -- what the Coalition members themselves identified at the time as being a "strongly" held -- position on fiscal issues.  Because of continued importance of fiscal issues, the position they took then continues to have significant relevance today, but is one about which Coalition members appear to have remained silent -- and, thus, quietly may be attempting to drop -- as they transition from one side of the aisle to the other.

As Herz correctly notes, the "Musk Ox Coalition" first surfaced publicly in a joint May 20, 2015 letter to then-Speaker Mike Chenault.  The letter was in response to an ill-fated proposal by House leadership to move substantially all of the money then contained in the Permanent Fund earnings reserve to the Permanent Fund principal.

The move would permanently have taken the past accumulation of what Governor Jay Hammond called in his book Diapering the Devil, the "other half" of the Permanent Fund earnings stream -- what Hammond intended to be available for "essential government services" -- off the table, significantly reducing the flexibility of both that and future Governors and legislatures to deal with the state's fiscal situation.  See Diapering the Devil (Hammond:  "I wanted to transform oil wells pumping oil for a finite period into money wells pumping money for infinity. … [Once the money wells were ‘pumping money,’ in other words, producing earnings] each year one-half of the account’s earnings would be dispersed among Alaska residents …. The other half of the earnings could be used for essential government services.”)

The Musk Ox coalition opposed the move, expressing what we believed then and still do now, a well-placed concern "about how manipulating these funds now might impact the ability of the earnings reserve to play an effective long-term role in reaching sustainable, balanced budgets ...."

In his story, Herz picks up on some of that, but leaves out this piece of the letter and then, "Musk Ox coalition" position:
... we strongly believe that major actions having to do with the Permanent Fund, such as this, should go before the voters. (emphasis added)
This position has significant relevance as the Musk Ox members move to the other side of the aisle because some in the new, largely Democrat majority that they are joining already are suggesting that significant cuts in the PFD necessarily must be a part of any fiscal solution.  At least in our view -- and we would anticipate, the view of most Alaskans -- such a step certainly would constitute a "major action having to do with the Permanent Fund," triggering the need for a vote, at least in the then mind of the Coalition members.

To us, a timely and highly relevant question then is what role, if any, the position has played in the move of the Musk Ox Coalition members to the other side of the aisle.  Does the position remain a "strongly" held belief of the members and, if so, how have they addressed it in the course of the move.  And if they haven't, does that mean they have dropped it, and if so, why was it "strongly" held then but not anymore.

Herz's story doesn't even mention, much less probe the issue.  We hope that future stories on the subject will.  It was a critical piece of the position taken by the Coalition members in 2015.  Now that they are assuming a significant role in the upcoming legislature, it is important to understand whether the position will remain so once they cross the aisle.

 For those interested, a full copy of the May 20, 2015 letter follows: