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Alaska House and Senate races close to being finalized, but how majorities will form remains unclear

The Alaska State Capitol building in Juneau
The Alaska State Capitol building in Juneau(KTUU)
Published: Nov. 16, 2020 at 6:57 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Division of Elections is counting the final batches of outstanding ballots in the next few days, but how the Alaska House of Representatives and Senate will organize remains unclear.

In the House, three seats remain undecided:

  • Democrat Liz Snyder is leading against Anchorage Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt by 17 votes. The Division of Elections says there are roughly 114 votes still to be counted in House District 27.
  • In House District 15, Republican David Nelson leads against Democrat Lyn Franks by 91 votes. With roughly 150 ballots still to be counted, Franks would need to win around 80% of the remaining ballots to be elected.
  • House District 40 also remains undecided between independent Josiah Patkotak and Democrat Elizabeth Ferguson. Patkotak leads by 148 votes with 596 ballots still to be counted, according to the Division of Elections.

At least 21 legislators are needed to form a majority in the 40-seat House.

On election night, it looked like Republicans would have a large House majority: six Democrats were trailing before absentee ballots were counted.

By Monday evening, all six Democrats had won their races, and Democrat-backed independent Calvin Schrage had defeated Republican Rep. Mel Gillis. Snyder could also flip Pruitt’s East Anchorage seat blue.

Democrats could have between 14 and 17 House members next session. There will be three or four independents and House Republicans could have between 20 and 22 members, depending on undecided races.

That group of Republicans includes three lawmakers who have caucused with the House majority coalition for at least the past two years

Fairbanks Republican Rep. Bart LeBon is among that group. He is currently undecided on who he will caucus with next session.

“It’s really hard for me to answer that today, at this moment, until I know how these races close out,” he said.

LeBon predicted that the majority caucus would likely see a mix of legislators from both parties alongside some independents. He said a slim majority caucus would be risky, particularly if some lawmakers were absent for votes or others couldn’t be convinced to vote together on key bills.

“What I’ve learned, in my brief two years in the Legislature, is that you need a healthy number in your majority caucus,” LeBon said. “Twenty-one would not define a healthy number.”

If he is elected, Patkotak could also be key for whether the next House majority is led by Democrats or Republicans.

“I still haven’t made a decision on who I’m caucusing with,” he said on Monday. “I ran as an independent, that’s really what I am. So, I guess we’ll see where I’d be able to advance the causes of the people I represent, along with looking out for the betterment of the whole state.”

Patkotak says his priorities include, “Looking out for services and programs that are important for my district, power cost equalization [and] making sure we have appropriate levels of VPSO funding.”

Debates about the size of the budget and whether to pay a full statutory Permanent Fund dividend have sharply divided the Legislature, and Republicans, for the past two years.

The idea of whether to have a “binding” caucus is also a topic of debate among House Republicans.

That kind of caucus typically requires legislators to pledge to vote together on some key bills, including the budget. If a lawmaker votes against caucus lines on those bills, they risk losing committee assignments and staff members.

Advocates of binding caucuses say they ensure the Legislature can get its work done quickly. Critics say they lead to lawmakers pledging their votes before they know what’s in a bill and potentially breaking promises to constituents.

Pruitt said last week that if House Republicans form a majority in their own right that there would not be a binding caucus. “Some people made some strong campaign commitments, and we’re not going to bend their arms,” he said.

LeBon sounded more supportive of a measure to ensure that lawmakers in the majority would work together to pass a budget.

“Eventually, you need to pass a budget,” he said. “And, if you’re in the majority, you basically need to depend on your teammates in the majority to support the budget process from the start to the finish, and then pass it on the floor.”

The 20-member Senate requires at least 11 senators to form a majority caucus. Thirteen Republicans and seven Democrats have been elected to the Senate, including two new Republican legislators.

Senate Republicans held a meeting last Friday in Anchorage but did not form a majority.

“I think it will take us a while to figure out what the majority caucus would look like,” said Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary Stevens.

Stevens said the goal is to have a Republican Senate majority in its own right. “The problems are always going to be the budget and the Permanent Fund dividend, and hopefully we’re going to find a way to come to some compromise decisions on it,” he added.

The question of whether to form a binding caucus is an issue in the Senate, too. No decisions were made on Friday whether one would be in place for a Senate Republican majority.

Stevens, who has been in the Legislature since 2001, said he had been in both binding and non-binding caucuses, and questioned how a caucus could operate efficiently without one.

“Without a binding caucus, we may never get to a point where 11 members agree to a budget,” Stevens said. “That’s where everyone has to be ready to make some compromises.”

Despite the clear majority of Republican senators, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich said there could still be a bipartisan majority caucus in the Senate.

“We are open to working with those Republicans who want to move the state forward,” he said, "and trying to build, if they’re interested, a cross-party coalition.”

Begich said there were good cross-party relationships last year which could inspire some Republicans and Democrats to form a coalition.

“It’s a lot easier to work with people you get along with than those you don’t,” Begich said. “So, that’s why I think there’s a possibility, or a likelihood, that we could come together.”

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