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GOP party leaders say Mat-Su Republican is guilty of bipartisanship

The Alaska Republican Party contends that state Rep. Jim Colver is breaking party lines and working to undermine his own majority in the Alaska House.

Party leaders in his district issued a letter of reprimand Monday accusing the Mat-Su Republican of collaborating with House Democrats to build a bipartisan majority in the Legislature next year.

Colver, R-Palmer, issued a flat denial of any coalition-building on Tuesday by phone from the Hatcher Pass area, where he was making a quick trip home for his daughter's 16th birthday.

He said the attack from the party's more conservative faction is motivated by his upcoming re-election bid against one of their own: Sutton's George Rauscher, a remodeling contractor and district party official.

"I don't think the Republican Party wants to have Republicans going after Republicans and chase people away from the party," Colver said. "I'm looking forward to getting people together and getting through a really tough end-of-session."

Asked if he'd be part of a bipartisan coalition next session, he answered, "No! That's poppycock, OK? This is a complete fabrication based on I don't know what."

A leading House Democrat said Tuesday that he's not forging any such alliance with Colver either.

"I think he's a nice guy but his politics are way, way, way more conservative," said Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage. "So it's a pretty odd statement to see in print."

The letter of reprimand, written by Alaska Republican Party District 9 chair Carol Carman, takes Colver to task for votes on the House floor last week and other behavior as "concrete evidence that you are allied with the minority."

It cites as examples Colver's deciding vote against two education bills including House Bill 298, which would have removed two triggers making it more difficult for school districts to lay off tenured teachers. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District supported the bill and sent a letter to Colver criticizing some of the facts he used to support his vote. The National Education Association opposed it, the letter says.

Colver also was "an aggressor" attacking a bill exempting economic development properties from municipal taxes and voted with the minority against a bill that would have added legislators as non-voting members to the Alaska Gasline Development Corp., the letter states.

Colver, who served three separate terms on the Mat-Su Assembly and also served on the school board, said that local government experience guided his votes on the tax and school bills and that he didn't support the NEA but did support teachers. He said the gas line board was created to represent private entities and avoid politics, so he voted against adding lawmakers.

"Maybe that's why I'm getting thrown under the bus, because I'm not taking orders," he said. "I'm trying to do the right thing."

Colver said he received an award of conservative excellence from The American Conservative Union last year and voted based on his 14 years of experience in local government.

Talk of the formation of some kind of bipartisan coalition is nothing new in Juneau. But the attention on Colver is part of a larger and mostly internal debate. Republicans hold the majority, but the upcoming departure of House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, opens the door to new alliances that could weaken the party's stronghold.

Colver's District 9, which sprawls from Delta Junction to Palmer and Valdez, is historically conservative. Colver didn't register Republican until 2012 but during 2014 primary elections unseated two-term legislator Eric Feige, a pilot from Chickaloon.

Party activists in the Valley are tracking Colver's votes closely, state Republican Party spokeswoman Suzanne Downing said Tuesday.

"They're very aware there's a primary challenger," Downing said. "They're just sending him a message, obviously, that they may want to go with his challenger."

House Speaker Chenault, who called talk of a bipartisan coalition nothing new, said that if his party district sent him a letter like the one Colver got, "I'd be talking to 'em about it."

Asked if he had a problem with the way Colver has voted, Chenault said, "He has the opportunity to vote on any issue how he wants to. And I assume he's voting the way he thinks his district wants him to vote, or what he feels is the right way to vote on whatever the particular issue happens to be."

Republicans in District 7, representing the Wasilla area, on Tuesday followed the original reprimand with a letter supporting the actions of Colver's home district party.

The letter noted "a correlation between your list of contributors and your voting record. This correlation causes us to believe you are legislating for the benefit of your donors, not your district constituents."

Colver attracted heavy union contributions during his 2014 primary run.

Both districts say they plan to hold a special meeting about Colver before the state Republican convention in Fairbanks in late April. A party rule allows Republican leaders to withhold support, including financial support, and recruit a primary challenger to run against an incumbent if certain conditions are met involving coalitions with Democrats.

According to the Alaska Division of Elections, Colver's voter registration was "undeclared" until he switched to Republican in February 2012. Colver tried to unseat the late Rep. Carl Gatto as an independent candidate in 2002. He worked as an aide to a Democrat, Nome Sen. Donny Olson, during the 2010 legislative session and gave money to numerous Democratic candidates through the 2010 elections.

The questions about Colver now are part of the party's focus on the next election, one conservative Republican activist from Fairbanks said.

"It's a concern, that the House could flip to a form of the bipartisan coalition like they had with the Senate a few years back," said Lance Roberts, who sits on the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly. "The way they resolved their differences was to spend lots of money."

Roberts pointed to Colver's presence last year on a coalition that opposed using part of the Permanent Fund dividend earnings reserve to fund the budget. Conservative Republicans wanted to use the reserve because they could access it with a simple majority vote, which Republicans could easily muster in both chambers. The alternative was to use the Constitutional Budget Reserve, a savings account that needed Democratic votes to tap because it required a three-fourths vote. That meant that Democrats could demand changes to the budget.

"It certainly gave us indicators and there was a big concern from talking to legislators down there about there being some type of shift," he said.

If there's something being worked out with House Republicans, nobody's told him, Gara said.

Nonetheless, he said, he's hoping for a more moderate Legislature next year, "that isn't democratic, that isn't rabidly focused on one party's agenda or another. But that's always my hope -- do I have any bets that next year will be any different from the last 10? I don't know. There's nothing different going on."

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