Stevens, Chenault to lead Senate, House

NEXT SESSION: Absent a big majority, both parties see need to collaborate.

November 7, 2008 

A coalition of 10 Democrats and three Republicans achieved "a pretty delicate balance" Thursday and put Kodiak's Gary Stevens in as state Senate president for the next session of the Alaska Legislature.

At almost the same time Stevens was describing his Senate coalition, a slender Republican majority in the state House named Nikiski Rep. Mike Chenault as speaker in that chamber and issued a lengthy list of committee chairmanships.

Joining Stevens and the Democrats in the bipartisan Senate majority are Wasilla Sen. Charlie Huggins and Sen. Bert Stedman of Ketchikan.

The Republicans ended up with three of the top five positions in the Senate leadership: Stevens as president, Stedman as co-chairman of the Finance Committee and Huggins as chairman of the Rules Committee, a powerful job that makes him essentially the gatekeeper of which bills reach the floor.

The top Democrats announced so far are Sen. Johnny Ellis of Anchorage as Majority Leader and Bethel Sen. Lyman Hoffman as Finance co-chairman.

Faced with a likely 10-10 split between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, Stevens said some sort of bipartisan working group was essential. That count assumes that Fairbanks Democrat Joe Paskvan survives the count of absentee, early and questioned ballots in Senate District E, where he ended election night just 214 votes ahead of Republican Cynthia Henry.

Paskvan was the only Democrat missing at Thursday's press conference in the Anchorage Legislative Information Office. The other nine Democrats flanked Stevens, but said little.

Stevens said he hopes his 13-member bipartisan majority will grow as some of the other seven Republicans decide to join it. "The door is not closed," he said.

Republicans on the outside now: Sens. Gene Therriault of Fairbanks, Fred Dyson of Eagle River, Conn Bunde, Lesil McGuire and Kevin Meyer of Anchorage, Linda Menard of Wasilla and Thomas Wagoner of Kenai.

At least two of those aren't candidates for switching to the majority. Therriault and Dyson attended the press conference, but they weren't applauding the new leadership. Dyson said the Senate Republicans had been scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon to talk about organizing, but the meeting was postponed at the last minute. He was clearly annoyed.

"This feels like betrayal," Dyson said.

'WORK TO THE MIDDLE'

Stevens said the 13 members of his coalition have "made an attempt to work to the middle" and set aside fringe issues for the sake of progress.

"There are far left and far right issues that really have to be off the table," Stevens said.

Stevens said one of his first goals is "to try to re-establish rapport" with Gov. Sarah Palin. The current Senate coalition headed by retiring Sen. Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, has been at odds with the governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate over the Troopergate investigation.

Stevens said he would try to have weekly meetings with Palin during the 90-day legislative session, assuming she has time.

Other Senate priorities, Stevens said:

• Energy, including infrastructure needs for a gas pipeline, and skyrocketing in-state fuel costs;

• Addressing the 10-year long-term fiscal plan Palin's administration will be submitting;

• Finding ways to reduce high-school dropout rates, school debt reimbursement and other education issues.

On the House side, Chenault takes over as speaker from Valdez Republican John Harris, who has said he wants to explore a statewide race of some kind in two years.

Chenault's Republican leadership structure has Rep. Kyle Johansen of Ketchikan as majority leader, Rep. John Coghill of North Pole as Rules chairman, and Reps. Mike Hawker of Anchorage and Bill Stoltze of Chugiak/Mat-Su as Finance co-chairmen.

Other members of the House Finance Committee: Republican Reps. Bill Thomas of Haines, Mike Kelly of Fairbanks, Anna Fairclough of Eagle River and Alan Austerman of Kodiak. The only Democrat in any of the top posts so far is Richard Foster of Nome, another Finance Committee member.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Chenault said the new leadership is mapping out a plan for what they want to accomplish. He acknowledged that recent plunges in oil prices will make it harder to write state operating and capital budgets this year.

"But there are some things in our favor in that regard," he said, noting that the last Legislature already funded a second year's education budget in advance, and set aside more than $5 billion in savings.


Reporter Don Hunter can be reached at dhunter@adn.com or 257-4349.

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