Fractured Capitol power structure complicates efforts to implement budget solutions

Kenny Knutson / KTUU
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Republicans easily maintained control the state Senate on Election Day, but Democrats picked off at least two House seats and set in motion a role reversal in the House.

How the new dynamic will impact public policy decisions remains to be seen, but Alaska's longest-serving house speaker, who will soon find himself in the minority, says he does not expect his caucus to be obstructionist.

"It's not our intent to do that," he said in an interview Friday at the Sheraton Hotel in Anchorage, as the group gathered to set committee assignments and talk priorities. "Our intent is to try to move forward with an agenda that moves Alaska forward.

"Of course we may have differences in agreement on what that looks like right now."

Chenault declined to speak to those differences or any of the new minority caucus priorities heading into the legislative session in January, as the group is still actively battling over that and trying to establish a strategy.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, is set to become the first Democratic house speaker since 1993.

He says the new caucus formed around the idea that state government's financial problems must be solved this year by implementing taxes on individuals and restructuring the Permanent Fund to use some of its earnings to pay for government.

The group's ability to accomplish those goals will be impacted by how many representatives end up joining. One race remains too close to call: Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, leads former Anchorage School Board member Pat Higgins, a Democrat, by just 45 votes.

There is an open invitation for anyone else committed to supporting a broad fiscal plan to join, Edgmon says.

Many in the new minority have ideological differences with the Democrat-led coalition's approach, but even Republicans who may agree, there is significant pressure against breaking rank.

Tuckerman Babcock, chair of the Alaska GOP, issued a blistering letter to media that was directed at three Republicans who enabled the new coalition: Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux of Anchorage, Paul Seaton of Homer, and Louise Stutes of Kodiak.

"We are disappointed that you pretended to be something you are not to your constituents as you sought their votes," Babcock wrote. "We apologize to your constituents for any role we played in advancing that deception."

All three lawmakers say they first learned of the letter in news reports.

Stutes says she was surprised because she had told the GOP chair in a phone conversation a few weeks before the election seeking a $1,000 contribution exactly what she intended to do.

"I told him, 'I'll tell you what I am going to do straight up. I am going to caucus with whoever is willing to get together and get a budget, get a solid budget, and get this state on a sustainable financial road,'" she says.

Babcock disputes that account and says Stutes never indicated she would caucus with Democrats. He demanded a refund of the donation; Stutes says she plans to return the cash.

Nonetheless, according to Babcock, the party plans to seek primary challengers for those three and anyone else who joins the new majority.

Seaton says he's not worried about his political realignment preventing his re-election.

"I had two Republican challengers in the primary this year, and the election was obviously successful for me," he says. "There was a lot of negative advertising about these same kind of thoughts of a very small philosophy of what can be in the Republican Party."

In the meantime, Chenault, who spent eight years as speaker, says he hopes there is not endless gridlock because of conflicting priorities from a House divided, a GOP dominated Senate, and Gov. Bill Walker, an Independent.

The Nikiski Republican offered this for his successor: "I do wish him luck. It's a tough job. I have a little bit of experience in it, and you've just got to keep an open mind and keep trying to push forward where you think the best direction for the state is."

But the political realities may be difficult to overcome next year as they have been this year and last.

"It's difficult to tell what will get done until I know who all the players are," says Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, who was tapped this week to serve as senate president. "One of the things I'm most concerned about is that you have to act quickly."

The challenge is finding ways work together to act quickly, as the state continues to operate at a multi-billion shortfall with easily accessible savings accounts rapidly diminishing.

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