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Alaska Legislature

For Palmer senator, redistricting concerns trumped budget vote

Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, during the special session at the state capitol in Juneau, June 4, 2019. (James Brooks / ADN)

JUNEAU — When the final votes were tallied Monday on the Alaska Senate’s plan to pay a $1,600 Permanent Fund dividend and reverse most of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget vetoes, Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, and Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, were absent.

They weren’t sick, caring for an ailing loved one, on a business trip or working on a family farm. They simply didn’t show up.

Instead, they watched the vote from Hughes’ Capitol office, then left the building.

As Hughes explained in an interview this week, it was a matter of long-term pragmatism.

“It’s a tactic that’s been used in legislative bodies across this country,” Hughes said of the decision to walk out.

Hughes is a member of the 14-person majority caucus that controls the Alaska Senate. Under the rules of the majority, members are required to vote together on final budget items. Hughes said that until shortly before the Senate convened Monday, she and others were not told that they would be held to that rule on House Bill 2001, which sets this year’s Permanent Fund dividend at $1,600 and reverses most of Dunleavy’s decision to veto $444 million from the state operating budget. (It remains unclear whether Dunleavy will approve the bill, veto parts, or veto the entire thing.)

“I didn’t want to break the rule,” she said. “It put us in a jam.”

Hughes and Shower support a $3,000 Permanent Fund dividend and budget cuts proposed by Dunleavy, and she feared they could be ejected from the majority if they voted “no” on HB 2001.

If that happened, she feared that the Senate’s remaining Republicans would join with the Senate’s six minority Democrats to maintain their majority. In turn, that could affect redistricting following the 2020 Census.

“You’re talking about some very significant long-term impacts,” Hughes said.

Under a 1998 state constitutional amendment, a five-member board draws the district lines after the U.S. Census is finalized. That board is supposed to be appointed no later than Sept. 1, 2020. Two members of that board are appointed by the governor, one member by the Senate President, another by the Speaker of the House, and the fifth by the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court.

In a coalition-controlled Senate, the Senate President might not have the support to pick a redistricting board member favorable to Republicans.

“We want our caucus to stay together,” she said. “That was our motivation.”

Thoughts of redistricting aren’t limited to the Republicans in the Senate. In an interview earlier this year, Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, said redistricting has been a thought on his mind since before the 2018 election. Begich’s comment was given in response to a question about the feasibility of a coalition government in the Senate.

He re-confirmed in a press conference Monday that he is unaware of any offers that could lead to such a coalition.

Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said Hughes’ description of Monday’s vote is accurate.

“Those two bills were budget bills, and so in order to efficiently do the work that the Senate has to get done, there has to be some commitment on the part of members that that work will be done efficiently,” she said.

Hughes and Shower were marked as excused absent rather than simply absent.

Their absence didn’t change the result of Senate Bill 2001, which passed the Senate 17-1 and is expected to be sent to the governor’s desk for approval or veto next week.

Giessel called the excusal “somewhat respectful," but it also had a practical effect. Under the rules of the Senate, legislators can compel absent lawmakers to attend a session unless they are excused.

Asked whether redistricting is more important than a specific budget vote and worth keeping the caucus together, Giessel said, “That’s a political question that I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to opine on.”

She said “what others may define as their greater concern” is their personal belief and not necessarily that of the majority as a whole.

“My greater concern,” she said, “is that the Senate completes its constitutional obligations in an efficient manner for the people of Alaska, and we had a budget to get passed.”

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