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Alaska Legislature

Alaska House’s new organization means an uphill climb for governor’s priorities, legislators say

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: February 28
  • Published February 19

JUNEAU — The fate of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposals to roll back a controversial overhaul of Alaska’s criminal justice system will be determined in part by one of the state Legislature’s most prominent advocates of data-based reform.

Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, has been named chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which is expected to consider the governor’s anti-crime bills if they receive the approval of the Alaska Senate. Claman is the chairman of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission.

The recommendations of that commission — before Claman joined — formed the basis of the criminal justice reform legislation known as Senate Bill 91. Subsequent recommendations contributed to legislative efforts to fix problems with SB 91.

“There’s an old rock ’n’ roll song that goes, ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,' ” Claman said.

Claman was one of many committee chairs announced Tuesday as the House continued to develop its 25-member coalition majority after last week’s election of Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, as House speaker. That coalition chose top leadership positions last week, but it had not selected the bosses of the Legislature’s standing committees.

Those bosses play a critical role in the legislative process. Without their support, legislation assigned to their committee typically doesn’t advance to a vote of the full House.

While the powerful 11-member House Finance Committee will have a significant Republican majority because many of the coalition’s Republicans have seats there, most other committees are headed by Democrats and have Democratic chairs.

Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage and co-chair of the House State Affairs Committee with Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, said that fact means Dunleavy will have a hard time accomplishing his legislative priorities.

To make his budget-cutting plan possible, the governor is expected to introduce more than two dozen pieces of legislation. Having Democrats involved in the process means the governor will be forced to compromise or abandon his plans.

The crime bills, though not budget-related, are examples.

“If there’s anything redeeming in (the governor’s bills), Matt will find it,” said Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage.

Claman declined to definitively say whether the governor’s four crime bills will be dead on arrival in his committee. Instead, he said only that he will subject those bills to the same fact-based, evidence-based consideration that he uses with all legislation.

“Every crime bill will get looked at with great detail and care,” Claman said.

As an example, he referred to the state’s pretrial release program, which deals with people who have been accused of a crime but have not yet faced trial.

One of the governor’s bills would revert that program to what it was before Senate Bill 91.

Claman said he would like to see the results of a recently commissioned University of Alaska Anchorage study examining whether the state’s changes to that system have reduced crime and improved results for Alaskans who are arrested.

“We should certainly see what that research shows,” he said, adding, “I expect it to be done in the May-June-July timeframe."

Other House committee assignments:

• In the labor and commerce committee, Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks, will serve as co-chairs. That committee is expected to consider alcohol legislation, including Senate Bill 16, which would allow the Alaska State Fair to continue to serve alcohol.

• In the resources committee, Rep. John Lincoln, D-Kotzebue, and Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, will be co-chairs. Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, will be vice chair. Lincoln represents the North Slope Borough and the Northwest Arctic Borough. Senate Bill 57, by the governor, would change the way the state handles petroleum property taxes, greatly affecting the North Slope Borough, and the resources committee may handle that bill.

“There’s areas where we agree, like with responsible resource development,” Lincoln said of his relationship with the governor. “And there’s areas where we disagree, as on the petroleum property tax, Senate Bill 57.”

• In the state affairs committee, Kreiss-Tomkins will be co-chair with Fields. The state affairs committee typically considers constitutional amendments, and the governor has proposed several dealing with taxation and spending.

“I’m certainly not going to support a constitutional amendment that would effectively guarantee ever-growing class sizes and ever-diminishing school quality,” Fields said. He did say he is in favor of constitutionalizing the Permanent Fund dividend.

• In the transportation committee, Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, will be co-chair with Wool. Kodiak and the rest of Stutes’ coastal district is almost entirely dependent upon state ferries, but the governor has proposed slashing the ferry system’s budget.

“Well, I hope it means they’re not going away. That’s what I hope it means,” Stutes said when asked what her assignment means for state ferries.

• In the education committee, Drummond will be co-chair with Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau.

“I’ll be paying really close attention. I am concerned about the fate of our schools with this current administration,” Drummond said.

• In the community and regional affairs committee, Drummond will be co-chair with Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau. Hannan said that committee typically fields any proposals to move the Capitol from Juneau.

• In the health and social services committee, Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, will be co-chair with Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel.

“I think we can safely say I’m not a fan of Medicaid work requirements,” Spohnholz said.

Zulkosky said she intends to listen to the residents of her district, and many depend on state health and social services programs.

“I absolutely see one of my roles as making sure those programs are protected,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Rep. Andi Story represents Anchorage. She represents Juneau. The article also incorrectly reported Rep. John Lincoln’s political affiliation. He is a Democrat. An earlier version of this article also misstated that Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage was a co-chair of the Senate State Affairs Committee; it is the House State Affairs Committee.

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