House trips over bad jokes and lawmaker's tongue

Richard Mauer
Gavel video framegrab

Its gas pipeline bill now in the hands of the Senate, the House on Tuesday looked back on its late session the night before with regret -- not over the 30-9 vote that advanced the bill but the juvenile antics that threatened to overshadow its long debate on policy.

The frivolity Monday night included Rep. Scott Kawasaki sticking out his tongue at the Gavel-to-Gavel TV camera; Rep. Dan Saddler and then most of the House breaking into hysterics over a speech in which another House member kept referring to the word "but;" and ended with a fart joke that three legislators had goaded bill sponsor Rep. Mike Hawker into making.

At issue was House Bill 4, creating the legal environment for a state-designed and bond-financed natural gas pipeline project to occur. It is independent of a much larger pipeline that would run from the North Slope to Valdez being studied by TransCanada Corp. and its partners under an older license from the state.

"Mr. Speaker, HB 4 is about Alaska's gas," Hawker said, wrapping up debate at 11:15 p.m. "Let's pass it."

Laughter erupted, one House member groaned, "Oh God," and House speaker Mike Chenault called for the final vote.

The only one who appeared to get into trouble afterward was Kawasaki, a Democrat from Fairbanks.

On Tuesday morning, the press spokesman for Chenault passed around pictures of Kawasaki and his tongue that were lifted from the video. At the moment of Kawasaki's gesture, Chenault, R-Nikiski, was speaking in favor of the bill, having climbed down from the Speaker's chair to join debate on the floor. With Chenault in the foreground of the video, Kawasaki's face was clearly visible at his back-bench seat.

Five Republican House members from the Interior caucus called a news conference Tuesday afternoon to rebuke Kawasaki for tampering with the dignity of the chamber.

"The floor of the House is sacred," declared Rep. Pete Higgins, a Republican from Fairbanks and the chair of the Interior caucus.

A member of that caucus, Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, was one of three or four legislators who, during a break in proceedings, loudly urged Hawker to close debate with a reference to passing gas. But during the press conference, she insisted she hadn't been engaging in a juvenile double entendre.

"What he said was not a joke to me," Wilson said. "I didn't see it that way. If you took it that way, I'm sorry for that -- it was to make it (the closing) short and sweet."

Higgins said he took offense at what he asserted was Kawasaki's "inexcusable and disrespectful" gesture to Chenault, "a man who has worked so hard with us to find a way to help Interior Alaskans gain access to affordable energy."

But later, Chenault, who grew up in the oil-field construction trades and whose personal email address starts "nikiski_redneck," said he didn't take personal offense.

And Kawasaki said he wasn't even pointing his tongue at Chenault -- it was to the camera.

After apologizing profusely in a meeting with reporters in his office before the press conference and then again at an impromptu news conference in Chenault's chambers afterwards, Kawasaki described what happened.

It was after 11 p.m, more than four hours into the House floor session, when his phone buzzed, Kawasaki said in an interview.

The video from Gavel-to-Gavel, the quasi-official broadcaster, showed Kawasaki looking down, then putting something in his pocket.

Kawasaki said it was his phone. He saw he had gotten a text message from someone -- he wouldn't say who -- and quickly put the phone away. (Texting on the floor is violation of House rules.) He looked into the camera and stuck out his tongue at the person who texted him, he said.

Unfortunately for Kawasaki, the gesture was hardly private.

As if the whole scene wasn't odd enough, in the middle of Kawasaki's second round of apologies, a duck started quacking. The quacking didn't stop until Rep. Beth Kerttula, the House minority leader, fumbled for her own cell phone and turned off the ringer.

Kawasaki said he apologized personally to Chenault.

"It wasn't about his bill, a bill that I did vote for, in fact -- and my actions and my decorum were inappropriate and I acknowledge that, and I would apologize to not only the members from the Interior delegation but my constituents as well," Kawasaki said.

The only mitigating factor he cited was the lateness of the hour.

"At 11 o'clock at night, and you folks all know as press-corps members, it gets rather humorous," he said.

That humor Monday night included a potty-eared reaction to what appeared to be an earnest speech by the majority leader, Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage.

"I think there's power in words, and sometimes it only takes one word to have a huge difference. For many years, I think a lot of people have said, 'I support a gas line, but...' There's always a 'but' there. I've heard it on the floor today. 'I support a gas line, but...,' " said Pruitt.

In two minutes and three seconds, Pruitt said the word "but" nine times. When he sat down, Chenault declared a brief recess as a roar of laughter erupted. In the middle of the 40-second laugh riot, Saddler, R-Eagle River, emerged from under his desk, his face red, and raced toward the door of the chamber.

Meanwhile, the bill itself cruised toward passage -- the only real consequence to all the hoopla being the loss of dignity by all -- Kawasaki, the Republicans and the press corps, which spent most of Tuesday chasing the story.

The bill survived intact despite numerous amendment attempts by Democrats, who said it failed to provide consumer protection against arbitrary gas prices, restricted access to the courts by citizens aggrieved by the pipeline project, had little oversight and didn't do enough to ensure Alaska hire in construction. Hawker, who steered the bill on the floor, said the legislation offered plenty of protection.

The bill doesn't mandate construction of a gas line from the North Slope to Southcentral, but establishes a state corporation to see the project through. Supporters say the line envisioned in House Bill 4 could be changed to a spur from the TransCanada line if it is constructed. If the big line is never built, the smaller line could provide North Slope gas to Alaskans, though critics say that Cook Inlet gas could be much cheaper.

Gas line politics led some House members to cross their usual caucuses in the final vote. Among the 30 House members to support the bill were two from the minority Democratic caucus, Kawasaki and Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage. Gruenberg said he vacillated over supporting the bill, but eventually voted for it in the hope that the Senate would correct some of its shortcomings in consumer protection.

"I wanted to let the Senate know that at least this member of the House minority wants to work with them and try to solve the problems," he said.

Two members of the Republican-led majority voted against the bill: Rep. Eric Feige, whose district includes Valdez, which strongly opposes the bill, and Rep. Neal Foster, a Democrat from Nome, where the benefits of a gas line to Southcentral would be mostly indirect.

Reach Richard Mauer at or 257-4345.

The incident begins around 239:33. (Gavel Alaska Video)

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