Control of Alaska House unsettled ahead of start
Slight GOP edge doesn’t determine organization
JUNEAU, Alaska — The big question heading into the new legislative session Tuesday is: Who will control the Alaska House?
Republicans will hold 23 of the chamber’s 40 seats, which would be enough for a small majority. But party doesn’t always dictate how lawmakers organize.
Bipartisan coalitions have formed when the parties are closely divided or evenly split. Organizations have formed, too, in bids to help protect constituent interests.
Rural Alaska Democrats, for instance, have organized with the GOP when it’s in charge to ensure their districts aren’t left out of budget and policy decisions.
The way lawmakers organize determines their top leadership.
For the past two years, the House has been controlled by a largely Democratic coalition that formed with a goal of addressing the state’s deficit following drawn-out, gridlocked legislative sessions. The few Republicans who joined were branded turncoats by then-state GOP chair Tuckerman Babcock, now Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s chief of staff.
In November, two of the coalition’s members lost re-election bids to Republicans, and a third successfully ran for state Senate. His House seat went to a Republican.
Republicans, therefore, were eager to reclaim control, asserting the day after the elections that they had organized a bare-minimum majority, even though a race involving one of their members, Bart LeBon, was too close to call. While the race was being sorted out, ultimately in LeBon’s favor, Kenai Rep. Gary Knopp left the GOP caucus, saying the organization was too small and “doomed to fail.” Nancy Dahlstrom, who had just won a seat, left to become Dunleavy’s corrections commissioner.
The two Republicans who caucused with Democrats and won re-election have indicated a desire to be part of a coalition. Knopp, who hasn’t joined with Democrats, either, has expressed interest in the parties working together. Republican Sharon Jackson, whom Dunleavy appointed to replace Dahlstrom, must be confirmed by House Republicans and seated.
Some current or incoming Republican members have said they would prefer a GOP-led majority organization, or pledged to voters that they would only be part of an organization led by Republicans.
In 1981, a permanent speaker wasn’t elected until the 22nd day of session, and that organization was tenuous. That June, during session, the Democratic House speaker, Jim Duncan, was ousted from the role and replaced by Republican Joe Hayes.
No one wants a repeat of that, said Rep. Dave Talerico of Healy, a leader of the Republican caucus. The best outcome, in his mind, would be for his group to pick up a few more members.
He and other legislators hoped having everyone in Juneau, face to face, could help break the logjam.
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Chris Tuck, who has served as majority leader the past two years, said having freshmen get to know members from the other party is important.
Tuck likes, at least as a starting point, a so-called committee of the whole.
“Right now, just staring at each other isn’t a very good process,” Tuck said.
Alaska Rep. Chris Tuck looks over a document in May during a break in the Alaska House floor session. Tuck likes, at least as a starting point, a so-called committee of the whole to run the Alaska House.