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Alaska voters pick lawmakers to grapple with state budget deficit

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: November 9, 2016
  • Published November 8, 2016

Alaskans headed to the polls Tuesday to choose 50 state lawmakers in an election that will likely affect how — or if — the state House and Senate fix Alaska's yawning budget deficit over the next two years.

All 40 House seats and half of the Senate's 20 seats were up for re-election, with a handful of competitive races that could determine whether the two chambers remain in the hands of Republican-led majorities.

At least two incumbent Republicans appeared to have lost their state House seats, though it was still too early to tell whether the results would flip control of the chamber to a different group of lawmakers.

Candidates turned many of the races into a referendum on the results of this year's legislative session, which ended in disarray after the House rejected a structural change to the Alaska Permanent Fund proposed by Gov. Bill Walker and approved by the state Senate — one that would have sharply reduced the deficit.

"Who do you trust and who do you want in Juneau making those decisions?" asked Jason Grenn, an independent who challenged Anchorage Republican Rep. Liz Vazquez. Speaking at his election night party downtown, he answered his own question: "The people who chose to not fix the problems? Or people who maybe have some fresh ideas and are willing to get down to business and make some hard choices?"

Grenn had about a 220-vote lead over Vazquez with all seven of the district's precincts reporting, though an unknown number of absentee and questioned ballots were still left to count.

The Permanent Fund measure would have diverted more than $1 billion from the fund's investment earnings to pay for government services, with the side effect of reducing dividend checks. After it failed, Walker vetoed half of Alaskans' dividends, saying that the full payments were unaffordable as the state faced a multi-billion dollar deficit.

In the August primary election, Alaskans reacted by voting out seven incumbent lawmakers.

Some of that discontent persisted two months later, as voters appeared to dispatch two more incumbents, Vazquez and Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau. Muñoz trailed Democrat Justin Parish by 184 votes with all precincts reporting and absentee and questioned ballots still uncounted.

Two other Anchorage Republican incumbents, Reps. Lance Pruitt and Charisse Millett, led their Democratic opponents by less 150 votes with only absentee and questioned ballots left to count.

Anchorage Republican Sen. Cathy Giessel was neck-and-neck with independent candidate Vince Beltrami, a labor leader, early in the evening but ended the night more than 500 votes ahead.

Incumbent Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, led Democratic challenger Luke Hopkins, the former Fairbanks borough mayor, by more than 1,000 votes in another closely-watched race. 

Tuckerman Babcock, the Alaska Republican Party chairman, said he was confident that uncounted absentee ballots would break in his candidates' favor.

The big question about the results is how they'll affect the organization of the House and Senate — whether the chambers remain controlled by the Republican-led majorities that couldn't reach consensus on the structural budget reforms that Walker proposed, or whether some new group of leaders emerges.

"We've had a good, Republican conservative stronghold for a long time. There's been a couple of hits on it — but this one could diminish some of that," Rick Rydell, a right-wing talk show host, said in an interview at Donald Trump's election night party in Anchorage. "We're in a transition and have yet to determine what we're going to become."

With Coghill's and Giessel's races leaning in Republicans' favor, the Senate appears likely to stick with its GOP leadership. Bethel Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a rural Democrat who caucuses with the current majority, made an appearance at the Republicans' election night party at the Hilton Downtown Anchorage, suggesting he wasn't likely to abandon his GOP allies.

But in the House, urban Democrats say they'd like to form a majority coalition with rural Democrats and some moderate Republicans.

"There's competing factions that could determine who's on top," Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre, a former Democratic legislator, said in a phone interview Tuesday.

The House leadership almost certainly won't be determined until Wednesday, at the earliest, once more results are settled.

"It really depends on the groundwork that people have done ahead of time," Navarre said.

Parish, a 34-year-old who works at a Juneau middle school, said he was flying to Anchorage on Wednesday morning to take part in Democratic organizational meetings. He bought a refundable ticket, just in case.

"I ardently hope to be part of a coalition of moderates, of independents, of Democrats — people of any political leaning who are ready to take real action on behalf of the people of Alaska in order to secure our economic future," he said.

Parish appeared to score the most surprising upset of the evening, beating Muñoz, who faced a backlash after reports emerged earlier this year that she wrote a pair of letters seeking leniency for people convicted of sexual abuse and child endangerment.

Parish said he got enthusiastic about politics when he joined the movement supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton. Parish's candidacy focused on the state budget, and he said it appears to have tapped into some of the same frustration that fueled another candidate on the opposite side of the political spectrum: President-elect Donald Trump.

"People recognize that the system, as it is, is not working for the vast majority of Americans," Parish said. "That's something which matters for a lot of people, and which a president-elect was better able to speak to than his opponent."

–Alex DeMarban contributed reporting.

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