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How to resolve the impasse in Alaska House organization

  • Author: Gail Phillips
    | Opinion
    , Kay Brown
    | Opinion
  • Updated: January 7
  • Published January 7

The Alaska Capitol in Juneau, photographed on January 16, 2017. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

At the time of this writing, we understand that no majority has yet been formed in the Alaska House of Representatives.

The prospect of a divided House was not resolved by the Alaska Supreme Court decision in Dodge v. State that settled the outcome of the final race in the 2018 election for Fairbanks House District 1. Even though that decision creates a nominal 23-member Republican majority by adding Rep.-elect Bart LeBon to the 22 Republicans previously certified as winners, two of the Republicans are members of the Democratic-led coalition (Stutes and LeDoux) and one withdrew from the Republican caucus (Knopp). It takes 21 members to organize the House and elect a Speaker.

As former members of the Alaska State House from different parties who served there together, we wanted to share an idea that could help break the organizational stalemate and also serve Alaskans well: a Committee of the Whole (COW) approach, where all members are essentially equal.

Given the close division, we would stipulate that the Republican and Democratic-led caucuses are essentially equal and therefore will share power equally.

We envision co-speakers and co-floor leaders, who would rotate for alternating periods (to be negotiated) during the two-year term. This rotation could be on a monthly basis, or as has happened elsewhere, the Republicans would be in control of the first session of the term and the Democrats in control of the second session. The Republican and Democratic-led caucuses would each select one of the co-speakers and one of the co-floor leaders; the entire leadership package would be voted on by all members of the House.

All committees would have co-chairs, as many already do, and each of the major caucuses would appoint one of the co-chairs and half of the committee members. One member would need to be added to each committee so that each caucus would have an equal number of seats on each committee.

The COW organization would be open to any member who would agree to organizing principles, whether or not they are a member of the Republican or Democratic-led caucuses. If not a caucus member, a representative’s committee assignment would be determined by the co-speakers.

COW members would get the same amount of base staff, with co-chairs of committees and leadership getting equal additional committee staff.

Organizing principles might include:

- Merit-based committee work; hear ideas based on merit and move forward in the best interests of the state

- Achieve a balanced budget that provides an appropriate balance between current and future needs for state services and revenues

- Cooperate to make it work

- Treat all members with respect

While not ideal, perhaps this kind of organization could work effectively under the circumstances, and provide better governance than either 1) an extended period with no organization; or, 2) a narrow majority where every member has potential veto power over every bill or budget item that would come to the floor for a vote.

In addition to getting the State House organized and moving forward to conduct business in a timely manner, perhaps such an unrestricted-oriented organization would encourage more problem-solving across party lines, for the benefit of all Alaskans.

Gail Phillips, a Republican from Homer, served as a Representative from 1991-2000, and was twice elected Speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives.

Kay Brown, a Democrat from Anchorage, served 10 years as a member of the House Finance Committee (1987-1996).

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