Alaska House leaders losing grip over rank-and-file, complicating finale in Juneau

When the Alaska House passed an oil-tax bill after a month of negotiation, it revealed a deep fissure within the Republican-led majority that's controlled the chamber for more than a year.

In the oil-tax legislation, the House dispensed with a proposal made by one of its GOP leaders and instead approved a drastically rewritten, compromise bill less favorable to the oil industry that came from a pair of rank-and-file Republicans. The compromise drew support from Democratic minority members.

Another bill from conservative Republican legislative leaders hit the House floor this week; it would force state employees, a frequent target of conservatives, to forgo automatic pay raises unless oil prices bounce back from current lows.

But a group of moderate members of the Republican-led majority drafted a two-page amendment that seemed to aim the bill back at the House leaders who originally proposed it. The amendment proposes a 5 percent cut to lawmakers' own $50,000 annual pay as well as a $100,000 cap on the salaries of legislative aides. That would be a blow to some of the experienced, highly-paid staffers to majority leaders.

"We don't take an oath that we're always going to be in agreement on things," said Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, one of the amendment's supporters. "It's a democracy. We haven't elected somebody to be a dictator in our caucus."

The amendment to the legislation, House Bill 379, is the latest case where LeDoux and her moderate allies have taken steps to derail the agenda of their own majority's conservative leaders.

Some observers say the split in the caucus is unprecedented and has contributed to the gridlock in Juneau by weakening the grip of its titular leader, House Speaker Mike Chenault.

Lawmakers on Wednesday were pushed to the final, 121st day of their session allowed under the state Constitution with no consensus on a state budget or on any of the major deficit-reduction legislation proposed by Gov. Bill Walker.

"The fractured majority caucus is at an all-time worst," said Ashley Reed, a prominent Juneau lobbyist.

The first signs of a split within the majority came a year ago, when a similar group of moderate members wrote a letter to Chenault, R-Nikiski, registering their objections to a budget-balancing plan they feared would jeopardize constituents' Permanent Fund dividend checks.

The letter's six signers were LeDoux, Republican Reps. Louise Stutes of Kodiak, Paul Seaton of Homer, Jim Colver of Hatcher Pass, and two Bush Democratic members of the caucus, Reps. Neil Foster of Nome and Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham. Colver later branded the group the Musk Ox coalition, saying it was defending the Permanent Fund.

Along with Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, Seaton was one of the authors of the compromise oil-tax legislation that passed the House last week. He was also one of six lawmakers who signed on to the legislative pay amendment, with LeDoux, Edgmon, Stutes, Foster and Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, according to a draft version.

Stutes, who's in her first two-year term, said in an interview she's not well-versed in legislative protocol or in expectations for majority members to fall in line with the majority leadership.

"I'm not too savvy on majority and minority. I'm savvy on what's right and what's wrong," Stutes said. If that means going against the grain of her caucus' leadership, she added, "then that's what you have to do."

"Isn't the allegiance to my state and the allegiance to my constituents why I'm here?" she asked.

Chenault, speaking to reporters Wednesday, said he hadn't lost control of his 26 majority members, but he acknowledged the substantial differences between them.

"What I'll tell you is we're a big family. And we always have disagreements within the family," he said. "But you keep that within the family and you try to move along with the legislation you agree to."

Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage and the majority leader, said that leadership, in fact, is not about having control, or stopping legislation it doesn't like, in the case of the oil-tax bill.

"That was a hard-fought compromise," she said. "It's not up to the leadership to decide what the direction of the caucus is. It's the caucus that sets the direction."

In the past, though, the leadership has demonstrated more influence and discipline.

Reed, the lobbyist, said one way top lawmakers maintained rank-and-file allegiance was through the parceling out — or revocation — of cash grants to individual members' districts. With a multibillion dollar deficit, House leaders no longer have that tool.

"They haven't figured out how to reinstitute that discipline in other ways yet," Reed said.

The split within the majority has drawn attention from House Democratic minority members, and one, Anchorage Rep. Andy Josephson, said he sees the fracture as an opening for negotiations that could help lawmakers escape the "morass" in Juneau.

Democratic minority members' votes are needed to access billions of dollars in a state savings account, the Constitutional Budget Reserve, that will likely be necessary to balance this year's budget. Those Democrats have accused Republican leaders of resisting collaborative discussions and negotiations. But the Democrats also enjoy a better relationship with the moderate faction, who now appear to be asserting more power over the majority's direction.

Josephson described the legislative pay amendment as a brazen rebuke of Anchorage Republican Rep. Craig Johnson, who chairs the House Rules Committee. Because of the central role the Rules Committee can play in moving or holding bills, especially toward the end of a session, its chair is a member of the leadership. And the rules committee sponsored HB 379, the original legislation to freeze state worker pay.

"That's the Rules chair's bill, and it just guts the bill and replaces it in a way that seems to show disdain for the merit of the bill," Josephson said, referring to the amendment. "It's really a pretty profound statement."

Johnson, who has two aides who earn $106,500 annually, declined to comment Wednesday.

Other majority members close to House leadership maintained this year's dissent and chaos is no different than usual, with lawmakers jockeying for power before reorganization at the end of a two-year legislative cycle.

House members' two-year terms end after this year's election in November.

"It is not unusual, at the end of a second session, for things to go sideways," said Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River. "There's a fair amount of pent-up interest, ambition, desire."

He added that the leaders of the House majority — which includes conservative and moderate Republicans and Bush Democrats — have a tougher job than the leaders of the minority, which has 12 Democrats and one independent.

"It's easy to keep it together if you're small and homogenous," Saddler said.