Alaska House remains disorganized as Senate prepares for session ahead

Representatives walk out of the first floor session without organizing or electing a House...
Representatives walk out of the first floor session without organizing or electing a House Speaker, Jan. 15, 2019 (Sean Maguire, KTUU) (KTUU)
Published: Jan. 15, 2019 at 7:44 PM AKST
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The Alaska House of Representatives gaveled into session Tuesday afternoon, but members were unable to organize a functional coalition or elect a House Speaker.

For weeks, members from both parties have been working behind the scenes to establish a majority in the House without a result.

Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer gaveled the House into session and began swearing lawmakers in after the pledge of allegiance and state song. A controversy erupted when Meyer tried to deliver a note from Gov. Mike Dunleavy to House Republicans regarding the vacant seat for House District 13.

Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom, R-Eagle River, was elected to House District 13 but accepted a job as Commissioner for the Department of Corrections. Dunleavy subsequently nominated Sharon Jackson to take Dahlstrom’s seat.

Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, raised a point of order, arguing that Meyer is unable to conduct any house business as a member of the executive branch. There was a brief back and forth between Tuck and Meyer before an at-ease was called, during which, heated discussions took place between lawmakers before the lieutenant governor called the House back to order.

Meyer put the letter from the governor to one side and called a recess until 5:00 p.m. After the recess was called, Tuck said that his point of order was based on a perceived separation of powers issue and not to prevent a Republican from voting for a House Speaker.

A spokesperson from Tuck’s office said that Dahlstrom was appointed by Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2003 when Rep. Lisa Murkowski, R - Anchorage, was named to the U.S. Senate. The spokesperson said that then-Lt. Gov. Loren Leman had followed the protocol of waiting for a House Speaker to be elected before recommending a replacement.

Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai, confirmed during the recess that he was still not ready to join a caucus with a narrow majority, and that he was seeking a broader coalition.

The House reconvened at 5:00 p.m. before immediately adjourning until 1:00 p.m. Wednesday. Without an organization in the House, session staff won’t be authorized to work. Rep. Dave Talerico, R-Healy, said that lawmakers are working to resolve the issue.

Across the capitol building in the Senate chambers, the session began in a much less dramatic fashion. Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, was elected as Senate President, presiding over the swearing-in of newly-elected senators.

After the first Senate floor session, the Senate Majority held a press conference in which the leadership spoke about their legislative priorities.

"Public safety is the Senate’s number one priority,” said Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage. “We’ve listened to the public and know it’s time to end the crime spree plaguing our state and make our homes and communities safe again.”

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, spoke about the need to protect the Permanent Fund and address an expected $1.6 billion deficit as projected by an early draft budget proposal from Gov. Dunleavy. Stedman signaled that Alaskans could expect cuts in the range of $1.6 - $1.7 billion in state spending.

The Senate Minority will likely be ready to oppose big cuts to the budget. Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, said that a billion dollar cut could send Alaska back into recession.

Begich said that working on a long-term fiscal solution for the state and public safety were priorities for the Senate Minority. He also spoke about the need to protect the Permanent Fund Dividend after pre-filing a bill with other lawmakers that would enshrine the PFD in the state constitution.

The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to meet Thursday where members will hear a revenue forecast from Department of Revenue Commissioner Bruce Tangeman.