Control of Alaska House un­set­tled ahead of start

Slight GOP edge doesn’t de­ter­mine or­ga­ni­za­tion

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - NEVADA & THE WEST - By Becky Bohrer

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.

Becky Bohrer The As­so­ci­ated Press file

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.

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