JUNEAU — On the 31st day of its legislative session, the Alaska House of Representatives formally organized behind an unsteady 20-member coalition majority.
While the House can begin considering legislation as soon as Monday, the new majority needs 21 votes to pass a bill and surmount basic procedural hurdles.
It doesn’t have 21 members because 18 Republicans sit in an organized minority and two other legislators — Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, and Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage — are acting independently.
But at least on Thursday, Rasmussen and Tarr backed the coalition majority, approving a plan of organization that puts coalition members at the head of committees that control the flow of legislation.
It’s uncertain whether both will back the coalition in the future.
“We’re still working on things here,” Tarr said of negotiations.
“I haven’t made an agreement to vote on anything,” Rasmussen said.
“I think it’s kind of unprecedented,” she said of the House’s situation, “but my district has a voice at the table, and I’m hoping that with compromise, there will be some good policy that can move forward.”
The impact of Thursday’s vote is substantial. The coalition includes 14 Democrats, four independents and two Republicans. With the coalition in charge, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents lead committees and can control legislation.
Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, said Republican-backed ideas proposed to change the state’s voting laws will not advance. Democrats and independents have said the proposals amount to voter suppression.
“If we’re in charge, they’re not going anywhere,” Drummond said.
If Republicans were to take control of the House, the party would control the House, Senate and governor’s office, allowing them to advance priorities at will.
House Minority Leader Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, said that it is “absolutely” possible for Republicans to eventually control the House, given the uncertain state of affairs.
Members of the coalition have agreed to vote together on procedural matters and the final version of the state operating budget, while a Republican budget would be non-binding, allowing members to vote freely, she said, speculating that could attract additional members.
House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, said she feels good about the state of affairs in the House, and that she would “rather talk people than numbers.”
Before Tarr left the House coalition on Wednesday night, Stutes said the coalition stood “21 strong.” She said she still believes the coalition has 21 votes for procedural votes.
“You’re just gonna have to stand by and wait to see how it pans out. I don’t think there’s a strong — obviously there’s not strong stability,” Tilton said.
Legislative librarian Jennifer Fletcher said she’s not aware of a prior situation in which a 20-member caucus bargained with other legislators to get the votes necessary to control the House.
University of Alaska Anchorage political science department chair Forrest Nabors called the current situation “highly unusual” and said that off the top of his head, he could think of no other state that has had a similar experience.
In countries with parliamentary democracies, the situation is more common and would be called a “minority government,” but that’s not an accurate term here because Alaska doesn’t have that kind of democracy, he said.
That said, Alaska is an outlier that with looser links between politicians and their political parties, and “because party attachments are weaker, our system is reproducing results more commonly seen in parliamentary systems,” he said.
“I encourage everyone to realize that in our state, party affiliations are not the same as they are in other states and in the country in general. Hence, I think we err in trying to frame majorities and minorities in our state in terms of parties. For the last three legislative sessions, that mold has been formally broken, and our nomenclature should recognize that break,” he said.
Correction: The previous version of this article misattributed a quote about Republican-backed efforts to change the state’s voting laws. The quote should have been attributed to Rep. Harriet Drummond, not Rep. Geran Tarr.