31 days into the legislative session, the Alaska House can begin hearing bills

There remains no caucus with a clear majority
Alaska State Capitol
Alaska State Capitol(N/A)
Published: Feb. 18, 2021 at 8:06 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - After 31 days of paralysis, the Alaska House of Representatives has organized, allowing for it to hear and pass bills and begin its legislative work.

Twenty-two representatives voted to approve committee assignments on Thursday, but not all of them are in a majority caucus.

Kodiak Republican Rep. Louise Stutes, the new House speaker, said that she has 21 members for procedural votes in the 40-member House. She would not say who the critical 21st vote is.

“I don’t want to put people on the hot spot, I just don’t,” she said.

That means that there is a 20-member coalition with 14 Democrats, two Republicans and four independents as a quasi-majority. There are 18 Republicans in the minority and a Republican and a Democrat serving outside of either caucus.

The Anchorage Daily News reported that Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, left the House coalition on Wednesday to serve in the House by herself.

“My commitment is to honorable public service, and my values are the same as they ever were: I am working hard to improve the performance of the legislature, and I will continue to work with anyone who supports legislation and policies that are good for Alaskans,” Tarr said through a prepared statement.

Tarr voted to approve committee assignments but did not immediately answer requests for comment on whether she would support the House coalition in procedural votes.

One Republican did confirm they had joined the House coalition alongside Stutes.

Rep. Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River, will be co-chair of the House Finance Committee, a critical committee that writes the House’s version of the budget. Merrick had received word on Thursday from her Republican Party district that she had been censured for her decision to support Stutes. She said something had to be done to break the deadlock.

“We’ve been down here for a month and we’re not getting anything done,” Merrick said. “We’re at a time of crisis and we need people to step up and be leaders.”

Another Republican is in a more peculiar position.

Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, voted in favor of the proposed committee assignments, she will now serve on the powerful House Finance Committee. Rasmussen is also serving in the House by herself after she left a caucus with fellow House Republicans earlier in the week.

“I felt like it was most important that I was in a position to voice my district’s concerns and advocate for those things,” she said.

The 18-member Republican minority is being led by Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, who said she was honored to receive that support from her colleagues.

The minority is not a “binding” caucus. 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.

One policy that does have agreement is that the Legislature should implement a tougher spending cap. “Because there needs to be assurances that there is downward pressure on the budget, and we don’t continue to have government growth,” Tilton said.

Stutes said the House coalition has been formed around the idea of passing a sustainable budget with hopes not to overdraw the Permanent Fund.

The House reestablished the Ways and Means Committee which will be chaired by Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage. That committee will take a look at the state’s finances and budget, and possibly new revenues, with Alaska facing profound fiscal challenges.

On the challenge of keeping 20, or maybe 21, members together, Stutes said it is possible: “I certainly believe we can because whether we’re 21 or 25 or 30, I believe that we all have the best interests of the state and we’re going to work with each other.”

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