JUNEAU — The new version of the Alaska Senate that organized this week has placed Republican moderates in charge of the state budget and put conservative Republicans at the head of policy committees.
Those conservatives say they intend to work as part of a “caucus of equals” including more moderate Republicans, but minority Democrats contend that the conservative Republican senators are now in position to advance long-held goals, including limits on abortion and new election security procedures.
“We’re gonna see, potentially, some divisive bills move toward the floor,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage.
Asked what those might entail, he said, “Issues around reproductive rights, things like that.”
Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said he doesn’t believe that legislative action on abortion is any more or less likely this year than it was last year.
“The pro-life mix in the Senate has not changed. Are conservatives empowered to set the agenda and have forward motion that can be successful out of the Senate? Certainly. We’ve organized as Republican Senate and we remain conservative,” he said.
The Senate’s new majority includes 13 Republicans and has added Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel.
Micciche said members of the majority will decide by consensus what bills advance and what don’t, under a kind of “gentlemen’s agreement.”
But advancing a bill beyond the doors of the Legislature requires action by the state House as well as the Senate, and with the House leaderless and divided 20-20, Micciche doesn’t know whether that side of the Legislature will be able to take up conservative legislation — or if it will want to, once organized.
Writing the state budget as the co-leaders of the Senate Finance Committee are Sens. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, and Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks. Both were among the Republicans who considered joining Democrats in a bipartisan coalition that could have led the Senate.
Heading the Senate Judiciary Committee is Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River. Heading the Senate State Affairs Committee is Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla. Both were denied committee leadership last year.
Senate committees are the first to hear new legislation, considering it and amending it before it advances to a vote of the full Senate.
“My guess is with this structure, that probably puts some divisive issues on the table,” Begich said.
Reinbold said it’s not accurate to say that conservatives have been newly empowered.
“No, I don’t think that’s fair to say that. We are a Republican majority. We have diverse views on diverse issues. And we will be working together, we will be working together on the budget, we will be working together on legislation,” she said.
Ahead of the session, new Senate Majority Leader Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, introduced a constitutional amendment that would exempt abortion rights from the state’s constitutional right to privacy. The Alaska Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that privacy protections protect abortion rights.
Reinbold said her committee has not received any bills yet. (Seventeen bills and constitutional amendments were referred to the committee the day after her comment.) She said its first priority, in meetings scheduled for next week, is to address “executive branch overreach,” a topic urged by her constituents.
“We want to make sure that we’re holding some checks and balances in place with the executive branch and making sure that the legislative branch is the one writing the laws,” she said.
Reinbold has previously criticized the way the state has allocated COVID-19 relief money.
Shower said his priorities for the state affairs committee will be election-related legislation (he sponsored an election-security bill well before the 2020 election) and “budgetary-type policy issues that are going to affect us economically, whether it’s a stimulus check to help people, whether it is capping our spending moving forward, taxation — all those things we’re going to have to talk about.”
“What I will put at the bottom of the list, for me will be anything that becomes like social policy issues that are not germane to solving the things that are hitting us right in the head, right now,” he said.
He said he may be willing to hear a series of proposals from Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage.
After last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, Gray-Jackson drafted a package of legislation intended to address the issues raised by many protesters.
With input from police, including the Anchorage Police Department, she wrote bills that would ban police from using chokeholds, from firing into a moving vehicle and require de-escalation training, among other things. Her bills — five in total — are modeled after the national 8 Can’t Wait campaign, which is encouraging similar legislation nationwide.
Begich, who is co-sponsoring the bills, said that because they are not “high-cost items” and are “not fiscally a problem,” they could get traction in the Senate.
“I think there is a chance that those bills, some of our — for lack of a better word — our innocuous bills, in terms of policy, could make a difference.”