Jan. 1—The new year is a time of new beginnings and recommitting ourselves to our goals. Alaska knows a thing or two about noble aims — and, sometimes, falling short of them. Here's a short list of proposed resolutions for Alaska and Anchorage as 2023 gets underway.
1. New year, new House majority
In the Alaska Legislature, what's old is new again as a closely divided House looks to be in danger of being leaderless when the legislative session gets underway in mid-January. It's the same story as 2021, when Republicans, despite having a slim numbers advantage, couldn't form a majority because of vast differences among the party's House members. That year, it ended up being nearly a month before the barest of coalition majorities formed, and the delay and near-even division set the tone for a body that had great difficulty agreeing to even the basics of the Legislature's responsibilities.
Needless to say, we can't afford that again this year. There's too much that needs doing and not enough time to engage in intrigues about who gets to chair which subcommittee. The House should follow the Senate's lead and form a decisive majority of members who are willing to put partisanship at least partly aside in the name of getting things done. Members should resolve to have a majority caucus ready in the House by the time the legislative session starts on Jan. 17.
2. Stick to a budget
With that timely House majority, the Legislature will be in prime position to tackle some of the longer-term fiscal planning it has been neglecting for nearly a decade. Given what we know of the pace of the legislative branch, a comprehensive, sustainable budget plan is almost certainly too much to ask for in one year. But it's not unreasonable to ask for a major piece of that work to get done.
A reasonable spending cap that will keep the state from overspending in boom years is a good place to start. Beyond that, legislators have myriad items to dig into. A formulation for the Permanent Fund draw that will give residents some surety but keep dividend checks from cannibalizing other services? A set-in-stone path to grow the Permanent Fund principal to a level where it can take up the slack that declining oil tax revenues have introduced? Any of these steps would be major progress toward a state that can focus on items beyond the annual horse-trading on appropriations.
3. A drama diet for Anchorage
Just when we thought it couldn't get worse, the dysfunction of our municipal government went on full display in the wake of the major snowstorms that caused chaos across Anchorage. Weeks after the last big snowfall, there are still major roads (and their associated sidewalks) that are clogged with snow. It's a combined city and state problem, but at the municipal level, it's a continuation of a trend of chaos in Mayor Dave Bronson's administration.
That chaos culminated in the removal of municipal manager Amy Demboski and accusations of improper behavior in both directions afterward. The matter is especially troubling not because Demboski was doing a stellar job as manager — we've called for her removal in this space — but because of her allegations that she was fired after trying to blow the whistle on improper handling of contracts and purchases. Could it be that a bad city manager was sacked for doing the right thing? As usual, it's radio silence from a mayor's office that is allergic to transparency.
And Demboski is hardly the first to hit the exits at City Hall. Just a few months before, Health Department director Joe Gerace resigned in disgrace as reporters were bringing to light his fabrication of major portions of his résumé. There has been major turnover elsewhere in the mayor's office, the health department and the municipality's homeless response team, as well as sustained turf wars over library leadership, improper deviation from the approved budget and a host of other items.
Halfway through Bronson's first term, the "new direction" he promised on the campaign trail has been far from inspiring in reality. As the snowstorm and its aftermath are showing residents, there's a big gap between rhetoric and results. If the mayor wants to have a reputation as a straight shooter who gets things done, he's got plenty of work to do this year.
Despite a handful of moves aimed at addressing Anchorage's homelessness problem, the fundamentals right now look near identical to how they did at the beginning of 2022 — hundreds of unhoused residents crammed into the Sullivan Arena and zero trust between the mayor and the Assembly when it comes to working out a permanent solution. That lack of progress is a failure, and there's plenty of blame to go around, as evidenced by Assembly members' reticence to promptly expand capacity at the arena despite a clearly demonstrated need.
Another indicator of the seriousness of Anchorage's homelessness problem is the outdoor death tally — at least 24 this year — of people believed to have been homeless. Administration officials say they believe that toll is being driven by drug abuse, and yet they have steadfastly refused to employ the Golden Lion, a building purchased expressly for drug and alcohol treatment. Saving lives is more important than concerns about neighborhood character or property values, and it's time for all parties involved to accept that saving lives is also more important than anyone's idea of a perfect solution. When campaigning in 2021, Mayor Bronson said he wouldn't be a mayor who let people freeze to death outdoors. It's time to remember that promise.
If we don't have a more appropriate capacity for homeless housing and drug treatment at the end of 2023, or even by the time summer rolls around, it will deepen the existing failures of our homelessness efforts. It will also quite likely have an associated death toll. We must do better.
5. Police body cameras, for crying out loud
Residents are paying millions of dollars for a service that police so far refuse to provide — one they've refused to provide for years, even as legitimate questions have arisen about use-of-force incidents nationwide. Cameras could be a valuable tool to establish a factual record beyond police reports, as well as help maintain Anchorage residents' confidence that nothing important is being hidden from them about the way police do their jobs.
Leadership for the department and the police union claim cameras will be implemented in 2023. But they also say they're going to third-party arbitration in the matter, a process they say they won't start — or comment on — until April. The notion of the department and the union being at loggerheads over camera policy is laughable, because so far the two entities have appeared to be in perfect agreement that their highest goal is to drag the process out as long as is humanly possible and craft a policy that makes no guarantee of reasonable public access to the camera footage. Police Chief Michael Kerle and union head Jeremy Conkling deserve to hear from the public over their failure to do what voters approved and funded.
The cameras must be implemented immediately, and the process for reviewing the video they collect should be open and accessible to members of the public. Anchorage Police Department's continued foot-dragging on such an important matter of transparency shames the badge its officers wear.