New bipartisan Alaska Senate majority of 17 vows compromise, consensus

Gary Stevens, the new president of the Senate, referred to the coalition of Democrats and Republicans as a “very strong majority” when all nine Democrats and eight of the eleven Republicans elected to the chamber joined it.

Members of the bipartisan majority coalition, including 17 of Alaska’s 20 state senators and senator-elects, have pledged to be moderate and focused on compromise.

Gary Stevens, a moderate Kodiak Republican and longtime lawmaker, will again serve as president after holding the position from 2009 to 2012.

It gives me great pleasure to report that we have a solid majority and have worked out a system for dividing the workload.

“I think we have a wonderful organization,” Stevens said at a late-Friday news conference in Anchorage.

Stevens announced that Senator Bill Wielechowski, a Democrat from East Anchorage, would be the chairman of the Rules Committee, which, along with the president, decides which bills will be brought up for a vote in the Senate. Senator Cathy Giessel, a Republican from South Anchorage, would be the majority leader.

He announced that Senator Bert Stedman (R-Sitka), Senator Lyman Hoffman (D-Bethel), and Senator Donny Olson (D-Golovin) would serve as co-chairs of the Finance Committee, which writes the state’s hefty budget.

The new group’s formation was announced just two days after the state’s new ranked-choice voting system was put into effect.

As a result, the Senate will be made up of 11 Republicans and 9 Democrats. This is a gain of two seats for the Democrats.

Some conservatives saw this as a vindication of collaborative efforts in the past. Among these Republicans is Cathy Giessel, who was president of the Senate in 2019 and 2020 but later lost her seat due to accusations of partisanship.

Giessel was re-elected to her previous seat in part because of the new ranked-choice voting system, which helped her defeat the more conservative Republican who had beaten her in the 2020 Republican primary.

In some respects, the new majority in the Senate is a rehash of previous alliances. From 2007 through 2012, a group of senators from both parties worked together to form a majority in the Senate, with Republican Lyda Green of Wasilla holding the presidency for the first two years of that time.

To put it another way, the new majority gives a legal name to a partnership that has existed in practice between Senate Democrats and moderate Republicans for the past few years.

Stevens said that this history proved a nonpartisan majority was preferable to an all-Republican one. These senators have spent the last four years fighting against cuts to government services and unexpected withdrawals from the Alaska Permanent Fund proposed by Governor Mike Dunleavy.

That’s admitting the truth about the past four years, in my opinion. We have not been able to get several of our senators to approve the budget.

To get the budget through, we had to sidestep them and bring the Democrats in,” he explained.

Sen. Mike Shower (R-Wasilla), Sen. Shelley Hughes (R-Palmer), and Sen. Robert Myers (R-North Pole) are three conservative Republicans who did not join the majority to oppose the current budget.

They want bigger payouts from the Permanent Fund. Stevens has made it clear that he would like to see the three minority members serve on committees and that he will keep trying to entice them to take part in the legislative process.

The three independent senators released a statement that attacked their Republican colleagues.

Hughes added in the statement, “It is very worrisome that my fellow Republicans in the Senate were not even willing to have a conversation about joining together for the sake of Alaska.”

She said that a “right-of-center” majority was backed by the vast majority of voters.

“Alaskans worry about leftist policies that impact families and children, as well as high inflation, gas, and energy prices. Biden’s anti-resource development policies are destructive to our state as well.

The results of the Alaska state senate election “clearly demonstrated Alaskans supported policies based on conservative principles that would open up new opportunities and encourage a robust economy, strong communities, and strong families,” she stated.

Unfortunately, the new coalition is bound by terms contradictory to what I ran on, and it looks to be focused on sustaining the current quo, Myers said in the statement. That’s what Shower said, too.

Considering that about two-thirds of first-place votes in Senate races went to Republicans, “their arrangement is hard to justify,” he said.

Giessel claimed that she has been in the same position as the three senators. During her time as president of the Senate in 2011 and 2012, Stevens was one of just four senators who did not belong to the majority party.

She argued that such an approach would be fruitless.

She told reporters, “You know, what I learned from that two-year time was that nothing gets done until you work with everyone.” This was followed by a list of achievements she had achieved by working with Democrats.

When I introduced health care reform bills in the past, they were always approved with the help of House Democrats.

Coming in with our own views and our own narrow perspective, and then realizing, “wait a second, there’s a huge world out there with different perspectives that are just as valid,” is a learning process I think we all go through.

As Giessel put it, the voters’ preferences are reflected in the nonpartisan approach.

The people of Alaska “are looking for folks in the Legislature who will work together to get something done, to get those essential things done that Alaskans are yearning to have accomplished,” she remarked.

Senator Elvi Gray-Jackson, a Democrat representing Anchorage’s Midtown, pointed out that most Alaskans don’t identify with a particular political party.

“So far as I’m concerned, the fact that we have committed ourselves to working together is symbolic of what the voters of the state of Alaska want to see,” she said during the news conference.

There has been a trend of bipartisan majorities in the state house, and this trend continued in the most recent session.

As of right now, the House’s organizational makeup is up in the air, despite the fact that Republicans will hold 21 of the chamber’s 40 members next year.

In the upcoming session, lawmakers will have to deal with potential future fiscal issues regardless of the makeup of their leadership.

Recent monthly forecasts from the Department of Revenue predict dips in projected money into the treasury over the current and subsequent fiscal years as a result of the decline in oil prices.

New projections announced on November 16 predict $372 million less in overall fiscal 2023 revenue available for state spending compared to what was anticipated when the year’s budget was passed in the spring.

The November projection predicts $580,000,000 less in revenue for the fiscal year starting in July 2023 compared to the spring estimate.

Oil prices on the Alaska North Slope are projected to average $94.65 a barrel until the conclusion of the current fiscal year on June 30.

The current year’s budget will go into deficit if the annual average price of oil is less than roughly $87 per barrel.

The most recent estimate from the Department of Revenue lowers the budget for the current fiscal year, which was predicated on an average oil price of $101 per barrel predicted last spring.

According to the agency, the price of a barrel of ANS oil has fluctuated between $89 and $99 since the beginning of the month of October.

Senators from the majority coalition expressed concern over the decline. After the press conference, Stedman added in a brief phone conversation, “We need to really start paying attention if oil slips below $90.”

All members of the majority have pledged to work on the budget and back the final product, but there is currently no consensus on how to deal with the difficulties caused by low oil prices.

We will set aside our partisan differences,” Wielechowski stated, “and work together to develop answers that will involve compromise on all sides.”

At the news conference, he added, “We’re all going to have very different perspectives on how to address this problem, how to handle many of these challenges, but I think what you’ll see – what I’m hoping you will see – is that we will all work together.”

Source: Alaska Beacon 

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