Alaska Senate formed with 9 Democrats and 8 Republicans

Two days after the deadline for Alaska election authorities to receive ballots and before the election results have been confirmed, all nine Democrats and eight of the eleven Republicans elected to the Alaska Senate announced Friday that they are creating a bipartisan majority alliance.

Members of the alliance told reporters on Friday night in Anchorage that they plan to pull together 17 senators, leaving three conservative Republicans in the minority.

Disagreements over the state’s budgetary policy have separated Republicans, making bipartisan coalitions in the Alaska Legislature increasingly common in recent years.

The Alaska House, which is controlled by a coalition of both major political parties, has not yet convened. Kodiak Senator Gary Stevens, a Republican, has volunteered to lead the Senate.

Until legislators meet in Juneau in January to vote on it, the decision is not official. With only 20 senators, the Senate can only elect a leader with 11 votes.

Stevens said the 17-person caucus was a “very healthy majority” and that its members had “discovered a way to share responsibility.” Still, he added that they had not yet decided on a set of priorities for the upcoming legislative session, which is scheduled to begin in the middle of January.

Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, the current majority leader of the Senate, is now in the minority, along with two other senators.

On Friday, she released a statement explaining that she had approached all of her Republican colleagues with the idea of forging a Republican-controlled majority, but that only one had answered: “to express they were not interested.”

Hughes said she thought the majority of Alaskans voted for the Republicans because “they are voting for a right-of-center majority.” A special message, according to members of the newly formed coalition.

Senator-elect and future majority leader Cathy Giessel (R-Anchorage) said, “All the members of this caucus are responding to what we heard from Alaskans.”

One thing that came through loud and clear was that Alaskans want legislators who will work together to get things done, including the essential things that people in the state have been waiting for.

Although he lost the Republican primary in 2020 to a conservative candidate, former Senate President Giessel was reelected to the Senate this year.

When Stevens was the last president of a Senate with a majority of both parties, Giessel was part of the minority of four Republicans.

Nothing gets done until you collaborate with everyone, Giessel remarked, summing up his two-year experience.

As Stevens put it, a “realization of the realities of the last four years” led him to join a bipartisan coalition.

Several Republicans voted against the proposed budget in previous years, including the most recent legislative session, and the majority of Republicans needed the support of Democrats to get a spending plan through the legislature.

Hughes, Mike Shower of Wasilla, and Rob Myers of North Pole, all of whom make up the three-person minority, have historically cast no votes in favor of the budget.

To keep with tradition, the entire binding caucus will have to approve the budget in order for it to become law.

Like previous bipartisan groups, Stevens’s group will focus on subjects that neither the far left nor the far proper care about.

Nothing will happen unless 11 members of this caucus vote in favor of allowing someone to speak.

That means that even if all Democrats or all Republicans in the 17-member caucus gather together on a single issue, it will not move without support from certain members of the other party.

Consequently, “we really do have to work together to get anything done,” Stevens added. According to Stevens, the majority has not settled on many goals for the session beyond establishing ground rules and agreeing to work together and avoid partisanship.

All the essential details are already known to us. There has been no formal discussion or agreement on such objectives. We will do that,” Stevens said.

From memory, I can say that it will address “all those vital things,” including energy, education, money, and infrastructure.

Stevens acknowledged that there isn’t unanimity on the dividend among members of the newly formed caucus, suggesting that the level of the Permanent Fund dividend, which has been a sticking point for legislators in prior sessions, will again loom big in the coming session.

We recognize that there are essential state services for Alaskans, but we are dedicated to paying the highest dividend we can afford.

The importance of education is undoubtedly at the top of our minds,” Giessel added. It’s necessary to take everything into account.

On Friday, minority member Shower issued a statement saying he would lobby for the elimination of ranked-choice voting.

However, Stevens suggested on Friday that he was leaning toward maintaining the current voting laws — enacted by ballot vote in 2020 — in Alaska, despite the fact that certain members of the bipartisan caucus, including Giessel, would have had a far harder time winning their seats under the old system.

According to Stevens, “this legislature has always been unwilling to overrule a vote of the people.” People I’ve talked to seem generally pleased with the results of ranked-choice voting.

That made a huge impact, and I believe it will result in a modicum of restraint moving forward. As a result, I believe the Senate became slightly more moderate.

Stevens also announced presumptive leadership roles and committee chairmanships during a press conference held Friday evening at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office.

Senators Bert Stedman (R-Sitka), Lyman Hoffman (D-Bethel), and Donny Olson (D-Golovin) will take turns serving as the committee’s chair.

Stedman is responsible for the operational budget, Hoffman for the capital budget, and Olson for the bill-included budget.

  • Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage) will preside over the Rules Committee.
  • Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson (D-Anchorage) will serve as chair of the Legislative Council.
  • Senator Click Bishop (R-Fairbanks) will serve as the majority whip.
  • Sen. David Wilson (R-Wasilla) will serve as head of the Health and Social Services Committee, with Sen.-elect James Kaufman (R-Anchorage) serving as vice chair.
  • Senator-elect Claman (D-Anchorage) will lead the Judiciary Committee.
  • Bishop and Giessel will share leadership of the Resources Committee.
  • Senator Scott Kawasaki (D-Fairbanks) will be leading the State Affairs Committee.
  • Forrest Dunbar, a Democrat from Anchorage, has been elected to lead the Senate’s Committee on Community and Regional Affairs.
  • Senator-elect Jesse Bjorkman (R-Nikiski) will preside over the Senate Committee on Labor and Commerce.
  • Wielechowski will be in charge of leading the Transportation Committee.
  • Löki Tobin, a Democrat from Anchorage, has been elected to lead the Senate Committee on Education.

Stevens promised to cooperate with the House’s leadership on behalf of the majority caucus.

But the 21 Republicans in the 40-member House have not yet secured a majority. Organizing may be delayed because of a number of uncertainties, such as the results of a prospective recount in one election or a judicial challenge to the results of another race

Governor Mike Dunleavy, who was re-elected with a large margin of victory, has not yet responded to the leadership coalition’s outreach, according to Stevens.

The last four years have been challenging for this administration. Stevens added, “I don’t know what to expect in the following four years.”

Source: Anchorage Daily News

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