The Alaska Legislature wrapped up its first week of the session Friday. Despite uncertainty going in, both chambers have elected leaders and determined their committee assignments. Alaska Public Media statewide affairs reporter Kavitha George was in Juneau this week and spoke to host Casey Grove about what the last few days have been like in the Capitol.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Casey Grove: Things in the Legislature have been somewhat unpredictable this week, but now we can say the House is organized, right?
Kavitha George: That’s right. We definitely went into the start of session thinking we could absolutely see a repeat of the last few cycles, when stalemates in the House dragged on for weeks while representatives tried to form a coalition. Basically no other legislative business could happen during that time.
And I should mention, a coalition is a majority group of lawmakers – so you need more than 20 – who band together, usually on ideology or shared positions on specific issues, to form the majority caucus, and then they’re able to elect a speaker and decide other leadership roles.
Going into the first day on Tuesday, there was no established coalition and the House adjourned without a speaker. And then somewhat surprisingly on Wednesday, Wasilla Republican Cathy Tilton was elected House speaker and she announced that Republicans had formed a coalition.
CG: So how did that all come together? What happened in the meantime?
KG: It looks like 19 Republicans – that’s all the Republicans except Kodiak Rep. Louise Stutes and Wasilla Rep. David Eastman – joined forces with the Bush Caucus to form a majority led by Tilton.
The Bush Caucus is made up of four rural Democrats and independents – Bryce Edgmon from Dillingham, CJ McCormick from Bethel, Neal Foster from Nome and Josiah Patkotak from Utqiagvik.
Forming a coalition was always going to come down to the folks in the middle. And Rep. Foster noted yesterday that the Bush Caucus has historically worked across the aisle with both left-leaning and right-leaning majorities. He said they are really just focused on rural issues like power cost equalization and infrastructure.
CG: This is kind of a shift from the last few years when Democrats have mostly led in the House majority, right? Is that going to signal a change as far as what actions the House takes this year?
KG: It does. You know, Tilton said that this is a coalition that is bound by shared policy goals. She’s kind of repeated the phrase “fiscal stability” as one goal, but it’s unclear what that really means. She did mention it could potentially involve a state spending cap.
She said they also want to take a look at election issues. Some members of the majority have been part of a Republican push to repeal ranked choice voting, for example.
I’ll also note that the majority as it stands now is politically, very mixed. I think one thing to watch where this could cause roadblocks is the PFD, because you have Republicans like Tilton, for example, who support a full statutory PFD, and then others like Edgmon who do not want to overdraw the Permanent Fund.
House infighting has certainly been a theme the last few years and I think representatives are pretty cognizant of that reputation. So everyone from Tilton to Bush Caucus Democrats are saying that they are really committed to working together this session.
CG: And for now, we can pretend it’s a nice big happy family. Okay, so that’s the House. What’s going on over in the Senate?
KG: Things are a lot smoother in the Senate. The Senate organized way back in November, so they’ve hit the ground running this week. The majority – actually it’s a supermajority – is led by Kodiak Republican Gary Stevens, and it’s a broad, 17-member bipartisan caucus, almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Their priorities this year are upping funding for education, teacher workforce development, and restoring a defined benefit pension plan for state employees.
There are three senators who are not in the majority. They are North Pole area Sen. Robert Myers, and Mat-Su Sens. Mike Shower and Shelley Hughes. They were mostly left out of committee assignments, and that’s because Shower and Hughes in particular have ruffled feathers and not really gotten along with other members. Stevens said this week they could revisit committee assignments later in the session if Shower and Hughes prove themselves easier to work with.
CG: So, technically bipartisan majorities in both chambers, but sounds like the House leans further right. How are we anticipating the Senate and House will work together?
KG: The House and Senate work in tandem on legislation and on the budget. So even though work on these issues might start independently, at some point the other chamber is going to have to sign off.
Both sides are going to have to make some judgments on what they can get past the other. For example, the Senate has already indicated that they are not interested in repealing ranked choice voting, which doesn’t bode well for those efforts in the House.
The PFD is likely going to have a lot of back and forth as well. Sen. Stevens said this week he doesn’t think the state can afford the $3,800 dividend Gov. Dunleavy proposed last month. And we already talked about some of the conflicting interests in the House there. So I’d say strap in for some robust discussions.