Coastal Caucus Gives Rural Senators More Clout

Senator Dennis Egan chaired the Senate Transportation Committee this year. Courtesy of Egan’s Flickr photostream.
Senator Dennis Egan chaired the Senate Transportation Committee this year. Courtesy of Egan’s Flickr photostream.

The so-called Coastal Caucus has given some Alaska senators a louder voice in the lopsided Republican majority that favors the state’s urban centers.

Sen. Dennis Egan is part of the group that’s worked together in the past, but formalized its existence during the legislative session.

Now that the dust has settled on adjournment, “it could been worse,” Egan says.

Egan took a big gamble this year.  He’s a lifelong Democrat who joined the Republican Majority, top heavy with senators from Anchorage, the Mat-Su, and the urban Interior.  It was not an easy decision, but he still thinks it was the right one.

“You have to represent your community,” he says. “Most of this stuff as far as I’m concerned is not an R and D (Republican and Democrat) thing, it’s not politics, you know, it’s the people that you represent.”

Egan’s Southeast Alaska district is no longer just Juneau, but Skagway, Tenakee Springs, Gustavus and Petersburg.  And Southeast lost representation in the redistricting process.

“Believe me, because of redistricting, I consider ourselves rural Alaska,” he says.

Egan says rural and coastal Alaska do not get enough attention in the legislature; hence the Coastal Caucus.   It’s chaired by Sitka Republican Bert Stedman.  Kodiak Republican Gary Stevens, Western Alaska Democrat Donny Olson, and Egan were leaders in the bi-partisan coalition that ran the Senate in the 27th   Legislature, but lost power in the new Republican-led majority.   Freshman Senator, Kenai Republican Peter Micciche, has also joined the Coastal Caucus.

With five of the fifteen majority members, Egan says Coastal Caucus senators have gained some clout.

“They now know we’re a force.”

They also take care of their own.  Early in the session, a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to allow state funding for religious and private schools was referred to the Senate Education Committee, chaired by Gary Stevens.  On a day with Stevens was gone, Senate Republican leaders yanked the resolution from the committee.

“I thought they rolled the chair,” Egan says.

He phoned Stevens, who had no idea the bill had been pulled from his committee.

“He was elected by the caucus to be the chair of Education.  You don’t pull an education bill out of his committee without the chair’s consent,” he says.

Egan also voted against the move, which brought the threat of sanctions from Republican leaders.  In the end, there were none, and it wasn’t the last time he bucked the majority, which would prefer members vote as a block.

Four of the five Coastal Caucus legislators* voted against the bill to reduce oil industry taxes.  Egan says too much was left on the table.

“Tit for tat. You give us something, we give you something.  As far as I’m concerned, we’re giving a lot but we’re not getting much.  I mean there’s no guarantee they’re going to drill or explore,” he says.

He’s also upset that school districts did not get an increase in the Base Student Allocation, and is sorry his communities did not get more money for construction projects, though there are funds for a number of projects in each of his communities.

On the whole, he says, his newly expanded district did OK.   The House – and the bi-partisan Coastal Caucus – helped that.

“Coastal Alaska senators felt we were being left out and if we weren’t part of that caucus we wouldn’t have had any voice,” he says. “I think that would have been a true disaster.”

Egan plans to visit his constituents in Petersburg and Skagway next month, and is still working on arrangements for spring trips to Tenakee and Gustavus.

*When SB 21 was before the Senate, Olson, Egan, Stedman and Stevens voted against it.  Micciche voted for it.  After it passed the House with some changes, it came back to the Senate for concurrence.  Olson changed his vote and agreed with the changes. Egan, Stedman and Stevens voted against the bill a second time.

Rosemarie Alexander is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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