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Alaska News

Bipartisan coalition in the Alaska House will be on the line in November election

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: October 28, 2018
  • Published October 27, 2018

Downtown Juneau and Alaska Capitol on January 18, 2017. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Conservative Republicans in the Alaska House of Representatives would dearly love to regain control of a chamber that has been held since 2016 by a coalition of Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans.

But the shifting dynamics of the approaching November election make it anyone's guess as to whether that will happen. At least one-quarter of the 40-member House is turning over and some incumbents are facing tough re-election campaigns.

"I think it could absolutely go either direction," said Rep. Tammy Wilson, a North Pole Republican who is running unopposed and has been campaigning for Republican candidates in contested races.

Whichever caucus controls the House also gets to control the agenda, the flow of legislation and pick key leadership positions. In general, Democrats and Republicans have starkly different views on fiscal issues like taxation, spending and regulation.

The current 22-member majority formed after the 2016 election when three Republicans — Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux of East Anchorage, Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak and Rep. Paul Seaton of Homer, who is now running this year as a nonpartisan) — decided to caucus with Democrats and independents.

The speaker of the House, Rep. Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham), said the coalition has restored funding for higher education while avoiding wholesale cuts to agency budgets that are already smaller than in years past. The majority coalition has also pushed for an income tax as a way to help fix the state's massive deficit.

Edgmon, who is running for re-election against Republican William Weatherby, also said the caucus achieved its original goal of passing a comprehensive fiscal plan in the 2017 session, though he blamed the Republican-controlled Senate for the plan's demise.

"Balancing the budget simply by eliminating important programs or services is something our caucus doesn't believe it, and it's something most Alaskans don't believe in," Edgemon said.

He added: "I'm not going to put words in their mouths, but I think that's what's at stake."

He said he was "reasonably optimistic" about the coalition's odds of surviving the upcoming election.

Rep. Paul Seaton of Homer had been a member of the Republican majority since his election. He said he joined the coalition out of frustration over by what he described as a lack of initiative to solve the state's problems and find ways to stop depleting the general savings account.

"There was just no consensus to move forward to actually diversify our state revenues," said Seaton, who co-chaired the House Finance Committee. "It was all just, pray for higher oil prices."

Seaton said he plans to prioritize oil tax reform next session if the majority maintains control.

But Seaton has to survive his own re-election race. He's running as a nonpartisan for the first time, saying he doesn't want to be beholden to the agenda of any one political party. His challenger, Republican Sarah Vance, is being supported by Wilson and other conservatives.

Leaders of the Alaska Republican Party were swift to condemn Seaton, LeDoux and Stutes in 2016 and pledged to retake the House in the next election. LeDoux barely won her primary race, and has drawn some challengers: A Republican write-in candidate, a Democrat and two other write-in candidates, one of whom is a Democrat and the other unaffiliated. She's also confronted questions about voting irregularities around absentee ballots, though there's been no word on the outcome of any investigation into the matter.

At this point, the House minority is "very interested" in flipping the chamber a more conservative direction, said Rep. Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage. Some minority members have accused the House coalition of ignoring their ideas for spending cuts and of wasting time on internal disagreements about budget matters.

Wilson said a Republican-led House would look to cut government and restore Permanent Fund dividends to the legal formula. Johnston said she wanted to focus more on innovation and less on spending.

"That was a lot of the general policy of the (House) majority … if they just had more money, we'd do a better job," said Johnston, who is facing a re-election challenge from Democrat Amber Lee. "That doesn't necessarily prove true."

While political parties don't dictate a lawmaker's ideas about PFDs, Seaton and others say dividends can't be fully funded without new revenue measures, or deep cuts to essential government programs, like public safety or education.

To retake the majority, Republicans will have to convert at least three seats held by Democrats, or lawmakers who caucused with Democrats, said Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, who is defending his seat against Democrat Liz Snyder. Fundraisers in recent months have rallied around the idea of winning back a Republican majority.

In recent weeks, members of the Republican minority have been discussing possible leadership positions if the election swings their way. Rep. Dave Talerico, R-Healy, who is being opposed by Democrat Ed Alexander, said no decisions had been made yet.

The forming of coalitions and picking of leaders happens the morning after Election Night. But a number of lawmakers said there are a number of variables this year, like write-in campaigns and a higher number of independent candidates, that may make the process take longer.

Some have raised the specter of a 20-20 split in the House, but Talerico and other lawmakers said nobody wants that.

"If we got there…there would be large buckets of sweat the next morning figuring out what happens," Talerico said.