Last year, when most Democrats were in the minority in the Alaska House of Representatives, they held regular caucus meetings that were open to the public before voting in sessions on the House floor.
Most of the Democrats who were out of power last year will be in the majority this year. But it’s not clear whether the majority caucus will hold these pre-session open meetings.
Rep. Paul Seaton is a Republican who was in the majority last year and remains in the majority after he switched caucuses this year. He said the new majority will have an open approach.
“The majority generally doesn’t hold pre-session caucus [meetings],” Seaton said. “If a smaller group of legislators want to get together and talk, that’s one thing. But the majority should have their discussion in public on the floor of the House.”
The new majority caucus includes 17 Democrats, three Republicans and two independents. Coalition spokesman Mike Mason said the caucus plans to meet in the coming days to decide whether it will hold open caucus meetings.
Seaton said early Wednesday that he does not expect the new majority to hold pre-session open meetings. Later in the day, Mason said the caucus hadn’t decided yet.
After being told Seaton’s remarks (but before Mason amended them), incoming House Minority Leader Charisse Millett said she sees a contrast between what the Democrats did in the minority and what Seaton said the new majority would do.
“The Democrats are the ones that actually screamed the loudest about it … being a violation of the closed caucus,” Millett said.
Millett, an Anchorage Republican, said the last year’s Republican-led majority held weekly meetings to discuss strategy, but they didn’t decide the outcomes of votes. Millett said that means they didn’t violate the Open Meetings Act.
In fact, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that state’s Open Meetings Act doesn’t apply to the Legislature, and in 1994, the Legislature added an explicit exemption for itself.
Millett doesn’t oppose closed caucus meetings, but she said it would raise concerns if the Democrats changed course.
“They’ve done a lot of philosophical bending so they can be in the majority and hold power,” Millett said. “Any time that you have a group of people willing to compromise their core beliefs to get power, I just don’t see a real good outcome of that.”
Juneau Democrat Beth Kerttula led open caucus meetings when she was House minority leader from 2007 to 2014. She said it fit in with the state’s traditions.
“It’s a hallmark of the Alaska Legislature, that actually, its business is done in public and so much of it is transparent … compared to other states,” Kerttula said.
Kerttula added that closed meetings are appropriate on rare occasions. She said the majority caucus members are “finding their way.”
Neither caucus has decided whether their caucus meetings will be open or closed. Millett said the Republican minority would discuss it at a retreat this weekend.