On first day of Alaska legislative session, Senate organizes while House deadlocks

A white man in a blue mask sits in front of a golden seal at a wiooden desk next to an american flag
Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer swears members of the state House in during the first day of the 32nd Legislative Session on Tuesday in Juneau. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

On the first day of the 32nd Alaska Legislature, the Senate organized and picked a leader but the House didn’t.  

It was an unusual first day of the session. Girl Scouts didn’t visit to present the colors, and there was no singing of the Alaska flag song. 

With the chambers complying with COVID-19 safety rules, plexiglass barriers were installed between lawmakers’ desks. And there were no visitors in the galleries.

Signs encouraging masks and social distancing were spread throughout the building. The state’s capitol is closed to the public and anyone who wants to gain access must be tested for COVID-19 and screened for symptoms. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The Senate Republicans formed a majority caucus during the last hour before the first floor session, leaving the party in control of the chamber for the ninth straight year. 

Soldotna Republican Sen. Peter Micciche was chosen as Senate president. In a prayer at the start of the session, Micciche noted that some senators are away from their families and asked God for aid. 

“Bring us together as a body to respectfully serve Alaskans,” he said. “Allow us to ignore the letter next to our names, their gender, color, religion and district politics to allow us to see each other as fellow, equal servants here to guide the policies of our great state.” 

Both chambers usually organize shortly after the November elections. But both the House and Senate failed to organize quickly this year, as differences among the Republicans delayed action and stoked Democratic senators’ hopes for a bipartisan majority. That failed to materialize as the Republicans announced their new leadership team. 

Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes will be the majority leader and Anchorage Republican Sen. Mia Costello will be the majority whip. Fairbanks Republican Sen. Click Bishop and Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman will be the co-chairs of the Senate Finance Committee, which focuses on the budget. Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary Stevens will help determine which bills move to the floor for votes as chair of the Senate Rules Committee. 

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, walks out of the Senate Finance room at the State capitol building. The Senate organized in a Republican-led majority on Tuesday, announcing that Stedman and fellow Republican Senator Click Bishop will chair the powerful committee. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Things did not go smoothly in the House. Just like two years ago, the House is evenly split and without a leader. Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer will lead floor sessions for the time being. 

Meyer, who served in both chambers as a lawmaker, addressed the House, recalling his own time as a representative and a senator. 

“You have officially received one of the greatest honors that I think a person can receive,” he said. “And the honor is the trust that Alaskans have bestowed on you to represent them to the best of your ability.” 

Bethel Democratic Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky led the prayer in the House.

State Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, leaves the House floor after being sworn in. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

“We thank you that, amidst differences in our home communities, families, life experiences and perspectives, we find commonality in a call to public service, and working on behalf of this place we love,” she said. 

The House could not agree on a temporary speaker to preside over sessions until a permanent speaker is chosen. The chamber split 20-20 on the only nominee, Fairbanks Republican Rep. Bart LeBon. All but one Republican voted for him. Kodiak Republican Rep. Louise Stutes, 15 Democrats and four independents voted against him. 

Both chambers are scheduled to hold floor sessions on Wednesday. 

Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at akitchenman@alaskapublic.org.

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