Good and bad news as Legislature opens

 Capitol Building in Juneau, Alaska
Capitol Building in Juneau, Alaska (KTUU)
Published: Jan. 16, 2018 at 2:46 PM AKST
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The Alaska Legislature opened Tuesday in Juneau with hope about the state’s economy and public policy, but it remains in a personal mess over the fallout from harassment.

Senate President Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, said the state’s finances were not as dire as they had seemed, when oil production was falling and the oil price was in the $26 per barrel range. For years, most of Alaska’s discretionary budget has been paid for by production taxes, royalties and corporate taxes.

In a meeting with reporters before the first floor sessions got underway, Kelly said the Senate would continue to resist new taxes, including a payroll tax proposed by Gov. Bill Walker. But even with a better economy, Kelly conceded that the Legislature would have to draw from savings accounts and Permanent Fund earnings, in order to balance the budget until 2023.

"Some of the rhetoric that came out a couple years ago was in the environment of $26 per barrel," Kelly said. "Some people called it a crisis, and maybe they were right to do so. Fact is, we do have a challenge on our hands, and the fact that $70 per barrel oil is what’s going on now doesn’t alleviate the fact that we still have to have a long-range plan. It just doesn’t have to be formed up in the context of a crisis."

Even as legislative leaders were relaxing a bit more over the budget, the sexual harassment crisis has deepened.

On Monday, the House Rules Committee released a

into a personnel investigation of accusations that former Rep. Dean Westlake, D-Kiana, had sexually harassed an aide. Westlake resigned in December after the accusations first surfaced, and the

. Westlake issued an apology following the report.

Rep. Tammie Wilson, a Republican from North Pole, said the report was seriously lacking, because it failed to give an answer about what happened officially between the time the staff member complained in March and Westlake resigned.

On Tuesday morning, Wilson said she still

that was ordered by the House Rules Committee chairwoman, Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, an Anchorage Republican. While LeDoux can’t control legislators, she can regulate staff, and she threatened to take away the aides of any legislator who failed to show.

A whiteboard in Wilson’s office shows staff predictions and an office pool, regarding how long she will keep her aides. The earliest prediction is that they will be gone by Wednesday, but Wilson said she plans to appeal and would attend if there’s an answer to her question.

"I will take the training as soon as the investigation has been done on the people who received the allegation on why they did not immediately investigate and take action," Wilson said in an interview. "But until that’s done, I am going to stand up for women and make sure that they are taken care of first, and there are no more victims here in Juneau."

Meanwhile, efforts to replace Westlake in the Legislature have hit their own snag. Following normal procedures, the Democratic Party in that sprawling district, covering the Northwest Arctic and North Slope boroughs,

, who is supposed to pick one and send it to House Democrats for ratification.

The governor's office is investigating allegations that one of the candidates has had a domestic violence complaint, another has been accused of poor business practices, and a third was a right-wing Democrat who might have trouble getting approved by House legislators. An aide said Walker still plans to submit a name this week.

On the House floor Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Matt Claman, vice chairman of the Rules Committee and an Anchorage Democrat, said that House Speaker Bryce Edgmon counseled Westlake at the time. LeDoux, the House Rules Committee chairwoman, was not told of the complaint, Claman said — the letter writer asked that her complaint not be distributed widely.

Wilson, speaking on the floor, continued to insist that not enough was done at the time the aide wrote her complaint.