Last Thursday, Alaska Senate Republicans left a closed-door meeting in Anchorage and walked past Rep. Laddie Shaw, R-Anchorage, without a word. Shaw eventually got the news: Those Republicans had deadlocked 6-6, failing to confirm his appointment to a vacant Senate seat.
The next day, the Alaska Republican Party’s central committee started a meeting in Fairbanks. Shaw was greeted by applause. The Republicans who had voted against him — and some Republican members of the House — were confronted by a resolution of disapproval. That measure failed narrowly.
One year before the 2020 primary election, Alaska’s Republican Party is deeply divided on the issue of the Permanent Fund dividend, and that divide has effects that cover every Alaskan. Democrats are also split on the dividend, but they have a fraction of the power that Republicans do statewide. Last year, Alaskans sent 23 Republicans to the House of Representatives and 13 Republicans to the Senate, more than enough to secure majorities in each body and provide support for the agenda of Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
But differences over the payment of this year’s Permanent Fund dividend prevented the creation of a pure Republican majority. The House is governed by a coalition that includes Democrats and independents. In the Senate, Republicans have named a Democrat their majority leader, and there are persistent speculation that it, too, could be governed by a coalition by the time the next Legislature convenes in January.
“There’s no doubt that conversation has percolated up because of this impasse,” said Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, one of six senators who voted against Shaw’s confirmation.
“I didn’t support (Shaw) because of the long-term economy of Alaska and how the PFD plays into it,” he said.
Between 1982 and 2016, the state relied on a formula in state law to determine the amount of the Permanent Fund dividend. Starting in 2016, and every year since, the dividend has been set by legislative or gubernatorial fiat.
In 2018, lawmakers agreed to cap the amount of money that can be taken from the Permanent Fund each year. That money might be spent on dividends or government services. This year, Coghill and a majority of legislators voted for a “surplus” dividend — an amount set determined by the amount of money left over after cutting the budget.
Paying more, he said, would require violating the spending cap and overspending from the Permanent Fund, even though it contains enough money to do so.
In the Senate, the vote for the surplus dividend was 11-9. In the House, Shaw voted with the minority in opposition.
“I couldn’t support him because the Senate is so close on those issues, in my view, it would’ve been not a good thing for Alaska generally, and it certainly didn’t fit with the way the previous senator in the seat had it,” Coghill said.
“It has become very clear that the position of either putting (the dividend) in the constitution or paying it out regardless of your ability to pay has become the main theme of many Republicans, and I don’t buy into that theme,” he said.
Five other Republican senators — Senate President Cathy Giessel of Anchorage, Click Bishop of Fairbanks, Natasha von Imhof of Anchorage, Bert Stedman of Sitka and Gary Stevens of Kodiak — also voted against Shaw’s confirmation, but Coghill said he could only speak about his own reasons for voting no.
Coghill said he does not believe the Senate is headed toward a coalition at this time.
“That’s always a possibility, but guys like me are reluctant to split up the Republicans,” he said.
Away from the Legislature, some rank-and-file Republicans have grown dissatisfied with the dividend positions staked out by Coghill, some of his his Senate colleagues, and like-minded Republicans in the House.
“We still get along, but I would say it is divisive,” said Carol Carman, a retired teacher and the Republican Party chairwoman of House District 9, which stretches from Valdez to Delta Junction.
Before last week’s central committee meeting, Carman authored two motions. One was to censure Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage, for their role in creating a coalition House majority. The other was to partially censure the six no-voting senators and others in the House who failed to vote for the traditional dividend or support the governor’s proposed budget, among other matters. The second was presented by another person.
Both motions failed, though the second failed in a closer vote than the first.
State Republican Party Chairman Glenn Clary opposed censuring Kopp and Johnston, saying by phone that he believes such a decision should be up to district officials, not the state. That’s a change from prior practice. In 2016, under a prior chairman, the party pulled support from three Republicans who had joined the coalition.
In this case, district officials opposed the censure, contributing to its defeat. Earlier this year, Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai, who joined the bipartisan coalition, was censured by the party after district officials suggested it.
“I’m doing my best to unify the party so we can move forward,” he said.
Though Republicans are divided, he believes the situation in the state is improving rather than worsening.
“What we need to do is repair relationships between all three bodies,” he said of House, Senate and the governor’s office.
Carman agreed that should be the priority.
“The only way we can back our governor and back the legislators who are backing our governor is to all unite,” she said.