Alaska Legislature

In Alaska House, missing members and deep divides pause progress on 2021 dividend

JUNEAU — Work in the Alaska House of Representatives came to a halt Wednesday as the House’s 21-member coalition majority failed to muster enough legislators to do business and minority Republicans stayed away.

Without only 20 legislators present — one short of the needed 21 — the House failed to advance a bill that would pay an $1,100 Permanent Fund dividend and distribute tax credits to oil companies. That bill is still subject to approval by the Alaska Senate and Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Now, a vote is possible no sooner than Friday.

With relations between the predominantly Democratic majority and the Republican minority reaching new lows, Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said there is a possibility of “zero PFD” going forward, something he called “completely unacceptable.”

House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, was out of the Capitol, at work at a rural job site, his staff said. Fellow lawmakers said he is unable to fly to Juneau because of bad weather. Tuck’s cellphone goes directly to voicemail, and he did not answer a text.

The 18 members of the House’s Republican-led minority were in the Capitol but stayed away from Wednesday’s floor session. Rep. Sara Rasmussen, an Anchorage Republican who is not a member of either the majority or minority, is quarantining after a close contact with a possible case of COVID-19. She said she will be present for the next floor session, scheduled for Friday.

House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, said their absence should not have mattered.

“Why, when there’s 38 legislators in this building? Why should one or two legislators anywhere make a difference? We have the ability, in this building today, to have a quorum.” Stutes said.

“It is up to the majority to provide a quorum. And they did not have the members available,” said House Minority Leader Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla.

During the regular session, the House majority occasionally operated with fewer than 20 members present, but that was always with the assent of the minority.

On Wednesday, Tilton said minority Republicans wanted more time to consider amendments to the dividend-funding bill.

In a Wednesday morning memo to lawmakers, Stutes said she intended to set a deadline of 5 p.m., with votes taking place late that day.

Tilton said minority Republicans thought that was too short a deadline, particularly because the Legislature doesn’t have as many staff available to write amendments during a special session.

Stutes said Republicans also asked for accelerated hearings on aspects of a comprehensive fiscal plan. Some hearings have been scheduled for next week.

She and other members of the majority said the issue boils down to the amount of the Permanent Fund dividend. Most minority Republicans favor a larger dividend than members of the House majority do.

“A lot of members of the state House of Representatives chose not to show up because they had some idea that things may not go the way they wanted them to go. That’s the bottom line,” Stutes said.

Wednesday’s breakdown is similar to a situation that took place in Texas, where minority lawmakers stayed away from the state Capitol in an effort to block the advancement of a bill that would impose new restrictions on voting.

In Texas, Republicans issued arrest warrants to force lawmakers back into session. A similar move is possible here — it took place in 1983 — “but we don’t want to do that,” said Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage.

“We actually want to get along with folks,” he said. “We want to work with folks and to show Alaskans we’re going to come to work every day and do the work that needs to be done. And when we don’t get our way, we’re going to still come to work and work on it and not just leave because we don’t get our way. We’re not going to refuse to come to work.”