Juneau’s Response to the Coronavirus has been Predictably Irresponsible

(Lawmakers huddle during this week’s legislative session on the house floor)

The mess in our legislature in Juneau today is far greater than any one legislator will be able to fix, but that does not mean that every single legislator should not be working earnestly today to do their part to fix it. I am committed to doing my part, day in and day out, which sets me at odds with the status quo in Juneau.

When I first expressed concern about the coronavirus in January, I cautioned those in Juneau and other parts of the state to take this virus seriously. The response was sadly predictable. The response from ADN and the political blogs was to mock the one legislator who was willing to call attention to it at the time.

When I wrote in January about the censorship of doctors in China, who were trying to warn their countrymen about the disease, there was still significant reluctance to talking about it in the state capitol building.

When I highlighted the first discussion about the virus in the U.S. Senate, and then passed on advice that “The Time to Prepare is NOW” on February 3rd, Juneau was still not ready to take this virus seriously.

I responded by simply reminding the critics that “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” (Arthur Schopenhauer)

It is a very familiar progression, as it is a path that I have walked down many times since first becoming a legislator. We walked down that path for three long years in the effort to repeal SB91. We were repeatedly told that it was impossible, that there was no stopping it, that we would simply have to let SB91 “run its course”, that those in Juneau who supported it were too powerful. Thankfully, there were some in Juneau (including then Sen. Mike Dunleavy) who were willing to persevere anyway, and SB91 is now repealed.

I have been walking a similar path with the Coronavirus for the last two months, and we have now reached the point where the crisis of the coronavirus is now accepted as being self-evident everywhere; everywhere except Juneau that is.

To Juneau, everything is political. The political angle is the focus. Everything else is blurry. This is what is meant when you hear someone say that those in Juneau are blind. It’s not actual blindness, it’s simply an extreme case of tunnel-vision. This becomes painfully clear with something as tangible and as terrible as the coronavirus. It is coming. We know it is coming. It is coming to Juneau, just as it is coming to any community in Alaska that maintains passenger traffic with other parts of the state and nation.

And yet, the legislature has literally done nothing to prepare for the arrival of the virus in Juneau. If the coronavirus were to be identified in the capitol building this morning, unlike legislatures in other states, the Alaska Legislature has no contingency for how to conduct business without assembling all legislators together into a single room.

The White House has advised all Americans to avoid groups of more than ten people due to the extremely contagious nature of the coronavirus. The response in Juneau has largely been “it won’t happen to me”, and so, other than shutting the capitol building to the public, we have largely continued with business as usual.

Each day, the House of Representatives assembles, as usual, putting more than 50 people in the same room, a number of whom are senior legislators in their 70’s.

Yesterday, the entire Georgia legislature was urged to self-quarantine after a Georgia senator tested positive for the coronavirus. Do we think this won’t happen here?

Over the last ten days, we have debated bills on electric bicycles, notaries, and changing the name of a road. This is Juneau. You aren’t dreaming; this is what it’s really like. While other nations are enduring conditions not seen since World War II, we have prioritized debating a new law for electric bicycles.

I’m sure, simply for writing this, my colleagues in the legislature will be looking for new ways to punish and silence me, but if no one has the courage to call a spade a spade, legislators will continue to walk the streets of Juneau wearing little more than the invisible clothes that exist only in their imagination.

The first item of business when the legislature gathers today should be passage of a bill that establishes legal authority for the legislature to conduct business without physically assembling more than 50 people in the same room. That’s it. That should be our first order of business. No exceptions.

Other states have passed similar bills. Why not Alaska?

It hasn’t happened in Alaska yet because doing so would deprive some legislators of a helpful excuse to rush their favorite bills through the process unvetted.

Juneau is so hopelessly mired in politics today that, rather than spur the legislature to action, the threat of the virus is simply seen as a political tool to accomplish old political agendas. Last week, it was used as an excuse to push through an absolutely awful “mental health budget” (what fighting against the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision has to do with mental health is your guess as well as mine), and was used yesterday as an excuse to pass the largest supplemental budget in state history, only a small fraction of which had anything to do with responding to the coronavirus.

Juneau needs help today. It needs concerned Alaskans to take note of the mind-boggling decisions that legislators are making. It needs concerned Alaskans willing to ask legislators the hard questions that few in Juneau seem willing to ask. And when legislators offer unsatisfactory answers, it needs individual Alaskans who won’t take a non-answer for an answer and, when the time comes, will be willing to vote against maintaining the status quo in Juneau.

Perhaps most of all, Alaska needs a handful of good men and women who are willing to make the personal sacrifice to take a tour of duty and deploy to Juneau for six months or more each year to protect their neighbors from the damaging, long-term decisions the legislature will continue to make if they do not. Otherwise, the status quo will continue.

It didn’t have to be this way. But it is. So let’s deal with it and each do our part to fix this mess.