Andrew Halcro blog
March 30, 2009
On March 19, just hours after Governor Sarah Palin held a press conference to announce that she was rejecting federal stimulus monies that would feed operating expenses, one of Palin’s directors was telling lawmakers the exact opposite.
During a Senate Finance budget subcommittee closeout, Department of Revenue’s Administrative Services Director Ginger Blaisdell testified that the budget for the Child Support Enforcement Division would be fine because there was federal stimulus money they planned to utilize to fill needs of the division.
Rebecca Braun, Publisher of the Alaska Budget Report wrote in her latest installment, “When a reporter questioned Blaisdell following the meeting, noting Palin had hours earlier said she is rejecting all stimulus operating monies (except Medicaid funding), Blaisdell was nonplussed.”
Braun goes on to report that the following day after checking with the Office of Management and Budget, Blaisdell confirmed that Palin had removed the money from her stimulus request. “I had no idea until you brought it up to me about the operating money being cut,” Blaisdell wrote in an email.
This was just one example of how the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing in the Palin administration.
Last week on my radio show I interviewed Anchorage School Superintendent Carol Comeau regarding the $170 million in education money for Alaskan schools that Palin said she was going to reject and the days leading up to that decision.
Comeau stated she was personally in Juneau during the first week of March and clearly communicated to the governor’s senior staff that if there were any questions about how she would spend the money or if there were any concerns about the future when the bridge funding goes away, to call her and she would go over the districts plan.
One week later, Palin’s Education Commissioner Larry Ledoux held a statewide teleconference with school superintendents from around Alaska to discuss the stimulus monies and how they would be distributed by district. Comeau, who was in Washington D.C. at the time of the teleconference, stated that her assistant superintendent ended the teleconference with the Education Commissioner with the clear understanding that the money was going to be accepted.
In fact Comeau’s assistant superintendent wasn’t the only one under the impression that taking the education money was a done deal.
According to Dermot Cole writing in the Fairbanks Daily News Miner, Fairbanks North Star Borough Schools Superintendent Nancy Wagner was under the same impression after the teleconference.
“Wagner said superintendents across the state took part in a teleconference with the education commissioner Monday regarding the details of the stimulus plan and received estimates about how much they would qualify for. Wagner said it was a shock to learn Thursday that the governor had rejected the money,” Cole wrote in the March 20 edition of the Newsminer.
In the aftermath of the governor announcing the education funding money would be left on the table, Education Commissioner Ledoux seemed to offer up a conflicting excuse to why the governor had pulled the plug on funding that days earlier he had outlined for school superintendents.
In both her press release last week and her latest opinion column published in the Anchorage Daily News this week, Palin has consistently stated that Alaska schools have plenty of money without taking the additional stimulus cash from Uncle Sam.
“Alaska’s children are my priority, as proven by my unprecedented increases to K-12 funding, including intensive needs programs, which we currently fund at historic levels,” Palin penned in an opinion column published in Sunday’s ADN.
However, last Wednesday, during a hearing in the House Education Committee, Ledoux seemed to sing another tune. Instead of schools having enough money, Ledoux argued that schools are facing tough financial times and the federal money could be a dangerous short term fix that would cause difficult withdrawals in two years.
So why didn’t Ledoux communicate this to Alaska school superintendents nine days earlier on the teleconference, instead of telling them how much cash they’d be receiving?
Meanwhile, Anchorage Superintendent Comeau stated last week she never received any phone calls asking for an explanation from anyone in the Palin administration about how she’d deal with the disappearing federal funding in 2011.
To add to the “send in the clowns” environment, Ledoux’s deputy contradicted his boss by testifying that the money could most certainly be used for professional development training that would not incur obligations and commitments beyond two years.
So with all of this internal confusion, where is the captain and who is piloting the ship of state? The answer appears to be that Alaska is on auto pilot.
The needs of the state and the political ambitions of Palin
Less than twenty four hours after she received national headlines for standing up and rejecting almost $300 million in federal stimulus monies, Palin started to back track due to legislative and public pressure.
The very next day at a press conference held by Anchorage School Superintendent Comeau and acting Anchorage Mayor Matt Claman to voice their opposition to Palin rejecting the education money, a sheepish Lt. Governor Sean Parnell showed up to clarify that the governor was still open to discussing the education funding.
Parnell defended Palin by saying the governor didn’t outright reject the money, she said she just was going to refuse to request it. Excuse me, but quick, somebody get the Lite Guv a Thesaurus. Reject, deny, refuse….it all means the the same thing.
However the question must be asked; why hold a press conference and announce you won’t request the money, then say you are open to discussing taking the money?
Wouldn’t a competent governor, especially one who just two months earlier told lawmakers that it was time for them to work together, actually work together with lawmakers before holding such a grandstanding press conference, thereby putting lawmakers in the corner?
There is no doubt that the governor changed her mind about the stimulus funding at the eleventh hour after being told by her SarahPac handlers that she needed a national headline, Rep. Mike Hawker (R-Anchorage) said during an interview on my radio program last Friday.
Her national ambitions won the first round to get a national headline on Thursday as a crusading conservative, but the follow-up on Friday was total in-state damage control countering the outrage from schools across Alaska, Hawker added.
A non-meeting of the minds
Since the governor began her back pedaling about accepting stimulus funds she originally said she wasn’t going to request, Palin has consistently said she wanted to have a dialogue with lawmakers.
Because the governor has the final say through her veto pen, lawmakers wanted to hear directly from the governor about what she would or wouldn’t veto before they plugged additional federal stimulus funds into the budget.
“All we wanted was a meeting. If you are going to veto these funds we would like to know,” Rep. Hawker said last week.
Taking her up on her offer, the combined House and Senate leadership scheduled a meeting with the governor on Thursday March 26 at 10:00am. However, the day before the meeting, lawmakers were told that Palin would not be available in person or by phone.
Instead lawmakers were told they could meet with the governor’s staff in place of the governor. Lawmakers weren’t interested.
“We didn’t want to meet with the governor’s staff. We meet with them all day, every day and still, none of them have been able to answer any of our questions,” an exasperated Hawker added.
In fact, two weeks ago we blogged about how the governor’s staff couldn’t even answer a simple question during a legislative committee hearing about legislation to expand children’s health care. When asked if the governor supported the bill, the same bill the governor held a press conference in December and said she supported, her staff was clueless.
“I’m not trying to hide anything, I have told you what I can tell you today. I don’t think I can answer your question directly,” testified Jon Sherwood from the Department of Health when asked if the governor supported expanding Denali Kid Care.
andrewhalcro.com – March 15, 2009
So with the governor not available to answer their stimulus funding questions, legislative leaders held their regularly schedule leadership meeting to discuss other legislative business.
One of the key pieces of business they discussed was the creation of a toll free number in conjunction with the Denali Commission that would allow Alaska’s non-profits to inquire about federal stimulus grants for non-profit groups. During the meeting, leaders decided to hold a 1:00pm press conference to announce the creation of the toll free number.
Meanwhile, at 11:30am, after the meeting had already adjourned, Palin’s legislative liaison strolled into the office of the Speaker of the House and declared that Palin was now suddenly available by phone.
According to Rep. Hawker, it was too late. There are ten members of the legislative leadership team, the meeting had long since been adjourned and lawmakers had disbursed and were honoring other commitments.
Hearing that lawmakers had scheduled a press conference for 1:00pm, Palin believed the press conference would be used to criticize her for being out of town instead of in Juneau meeting with lawmakers over the stimulus monies.
So at 1:08pm, eight minutes after the scheduled start of the press conference called by lawmakers to announce the creation of the toll free number for non-profits, Palin issued a press release stating that it was lawmakers, not her, who cancelled the meeting.
“Governor Sarah Palin was scheduled to participate telephonically in a meeting with legislative leadership today when legislative leaders cancelled the meeting to host their own press conference,” the news release from the governor’s office stated.
Lawmakers were furious.
Senate President Gary Stevens, who is as cool and reserved as they come didn’t mince words. Stevens said the statement Palin sent to the press about what happened was “absolutely false, absolutely false. Someone should be brought to task on that.”
It was a “blind and paranoid” press release, Rep, Hawker told my listening audience on Friday afternoon, the day after the events unfolded. The governor thought we were calling this press conference to beat her up, when that was as far from the truth as possible, Hawker added.
But what is even more telling is the absence of any vision or leadership from Palin on much of anything.
In response to bailing out on the meeting with lawmakers to talk stimulus and potential veteos, Palin said it was premature and offered up this explanation; “It’s hypothetical to talk about action that would be taken on a bill that of course hasn’t reached our desk yet, it has not even been formulated yet,” Palin said.
This comment again highlights how the executive branch is on auto pilot.
First, the intent of the meeting was so lawmakers could sit down with the governor and foster more direct communication to hopefully avoid any vetoes before they sent the bill to the governor’s desk.
Second, from her response, Palin seems to believe that although it’s premature to sit down and talk about what stimulus funds she would veto, it wasn’t premature for her to hold a press conference last week to declare what stimulus funds she wasn’t going to request.
Auto Pilot…fully engaged.
A preponderance of misinformation
Since their March 19 press conference, both the Governor and the Lt. Governor have been consistently selling misinformation about the stimulus money.
Whether you support taking the federal money or not, I’m sure we all support an honest discussion based on facts not fiction.
Both Palin and Parnell have been fear mongering about the federal strings attached to the stimulus money, even after the governor’s own budget director and lawmakers have found that there are actually few strings attached.
One of the favorite red herrings is the notion that if the state accepts energy related stimulus money, the legislature would have to adopt costly building codes.
“For example, Alaska’s communities would have to adopt building energy codes that complement the most recent International Codes. These standards should be locally determined, not federally mandated,” Palin wrote in a Sunday opinion column in the ADN.
But as the Alaska Budget Report writes, “Palin has put herself at odds with the largest builder’s association in Alaska.”
The Alaska State Home Builders Association supports the adoption of a building code that would include an energy component and an AHFC presentation to the Office of Management and Budget showed significant savings could be achieved for homeowners with the adoption of an energy code, citing the high cost of heating homes that don’t meet code.
The big picture
Aside from the stimulus funds, the failure to communicate with her own staff and the appearance that Palin’s decision making process is limited to sending out ill conceived press releases, most of this doesn’t come as a surprise that state government is on auto pilot.
This is an administration that can only make political decisions instead of practical ones.
Two weeks ago during a press conference the governor called to defend AGIA, one of her gas pipeline team members made comments that highlighted how out of touch they are.
Mark Myers, recently brought back to state service as the AGIA Coordinator, proclaimed that one of the exciting things happening on the North Slope was Exxon’s development at Point Thomson.
Excuse me, but is this the same development that DNR Commissioner Tom Irwin nearly crippled by playing politics, until he couldn’t stall anymore and realized he was on the verge of embarrassing himself in court, all the while costing Alaska time, money and jobs?
In fact, the exciting work that Exxon is doing should have began last year, when they submitted their plan of development that Irwin rejected twice. Irwin’s ego and ignorance coupled with the governor refusing to lead, cost both Exxon and the state millions in legal fees that could have better spent in Alaska’s private sector.
Over the last ten months, Gov. Palin’s office has issued three hundred and thirty six news releases, an average of more than one per day.
Out of those three hundred and thirty six news releases issued since June of 2008, only one – yes one, has proposed any substantive public policies to address critical issues like Health Care, Education, Public Safety or Domestic Violence.
In fact during that time period, the governor issued more news releases attacking the media and defending her actions as governor versus her plans to address Alaska’s greatest public policy challenges.
On the twentieth anniversary of the greatest maritime disaster of all time, we all know from history what went wrong. The captain went below deck leaving the ship on auto pilot and in the hands of his crew.
Twenty years later, Alaska’s ship of state captain has gone below deck…and the state is on auto pilot.
Copyright 2009 andrewhalcro.com