All nine Democrats and eight of the 11 Republicans elected to the Alaska Senate are forming a bipartisan majority coalition, they said Friday, just two days after the deadline for Alaska election officials to receive ballots and before the election results have been certified.
The coalition will bring together 17 senators, leaving three right-wing Republicans in the minority, coalition members told reporters Friday evening in Anchorage.
Bipartisan coalitions — a rarity in other parts of the country — have become a staple of the Alaska Legislature in recent years with disagreements over the state fiscal policy dividing Republicans. The Alaska House, currently controlled by a bipartisan coalition, has not yet organized.
Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary Stevens announced that he would serve as Senate president. The decision will not be final until lawmakers gather in Juneau in January and vote on it. In the 20-person Senate, 11 votes are needed to elect a leader and conduct business.
Stevens called the 17-member caucus a “very healthy majority” and said they had “found a way to share responsibilities,” but he added they had not yet discussed specific priorities for the legislative session set to begin in mid-January.
Current Senate Majority Leader Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, is now one of three senators relegated to a small minority. In a statement Friday, she said she had proposed forming a Republican-controlled majority and reached out to all her Republican colleagues, but only one responded “to convey they were not interested.”
Hughes said she believed that since a majority of Alaskans voted for a Republican candidate, “they are voting for a right-of-center majority.” Members of the newly formed coalition said they heard a different message from voters.
“All the members of this caucus are responding to what we heard from Alaskans,” said Sen.-elect Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, who will serve as majority leader. “The one message that came through loud and clear is that Alaskans are looking for people in the Legislature who will work together to get something done — to get those important things done that Alaskans are waiting to have accomplished.”
Giessel, who previously served as Senate president, was reelected this year to the Senate after losing the Republican primary in 2020 to a challenger from the right.
A decade ago, Giessel served in a four-Republican minority when Stevens was last president of a bipartisan majority-controlled Senate. “What I have learned during that two-year period was that nothing gets done unless you work with everyone,” said Giessel.
Stevens said his decision to join a bipartisan coalition was “a recognition of the reality of the last four years.” In those years — including the most recent legislative session — several Republicans voted against the proposed budget, and the majority Republicans relied on Democrats to pass a spending plan for the state.
The three members of the minority — including Hughes, Mike Shower of Wasilla and Robb Myers of North Pole — have all voted against the budget in the past.
All members of the binding caucus will be required to vote in favor of the budget, as has been the rule in the past.
“Like past bipartisan organizations, we will be working in the middle — not the far-left or the far-right issues,” Stevens said. “Nothing will happen without 11 members of this caucus agreeing that someone would go to the floor.”
That means that even if all Democrats or all Republicans in the 17-member caucus get together on a single issue, it would not advance without support from some members of the opposing party. “So we really have to work together to get anything done,” Stevens said.
Beyond basic rules and an agreement to work together and avoid partisanship, Stevens said not much had been determined in terms of the majority’s goals for the session.
“We know all the important things. We haven’t sat down and agreed to those goals yet. We will do that,” Stevens said. “Just off the top of my head, it will deal with energy, education, budget, infrastructure — all those important things.”
The size of the Permanent Fund dividend — which has been a sticking point for legislators in recent sessions — will likely loom large again in the coming session, and Stevens admitted that there isn’t agreement on the dividend among members of the newly formed caucus.
“We’re all committed to … the largest dividend that we can afford, but we also know that there are state services that are critical to Alaskans. Education probably comes to the forefront of our thoughts,” said Giessel. “So all of that has to be weighed out.”
Shower, a member of the minority, said in a statement Friday that he would work to repeal ranked choice voting. But some members of the bipartisan caucus, including Giessel, likely would not have won their respective seats under Alaska’s previous election system, and Stevens indicated Friday that he was inclined to keep the new voting laws — adopted by ballot measure in 2020 — in place.
“There’s always been a loathness on part of this Legislature to overturn a vote of the people,” Stevens said. “Most people I talk to are reasonably happy with how ranked choice voting worked. It made a big difference — I think it will lead to a little more moderation. I think it had led to a little more moderation in the Senate.”
In the press conference held Friday evening at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office, Stevens also announced presumptive leadership roles and committee chairmanships — all of which are yet to be confirmed.
• Finance Committee chairmanship will be shared three ways between Sens. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka; Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel; and Donny Olson, D-Golovin. Stedman will be charged with the operating budget, Hoffman with the capital budget, and Olson with spending included in bills.
• The Rules Committee will be chaired by Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage.
• The Legislative Council will be chaired by Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage.
• The majority whip will be Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks.
• The Health and Social Services Committee will be chaired by Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, and vice-chaired by Sen.-elect James Kaufman, R-Anchorage.
• The Judiciary Committee will be chaired by Sen.-elect Matt Claman, D-Anchorage.
• The Resources Committee will be co-chaired by Bishop and Giessel.
• The State Affairs Committee will be chaired by Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks.
• The Community and Regional affairs Committee will be chaired by Sen.-elect Forrest Dunbar, D-Anchorage.
• The Labor and Commerce Committee will be chaired by Sen.-elect Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski.
• The Transportation Committee will be chaired by Wielechowski.
• The Education Committee will be chaired by Sen.-elect Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage.
Stevens said the majority caucus will work with House leadership. But the House — with a current balance of 21 Republicans in a 40-seat chamber — has not yet formed a majority. Several questions, including a possible recount in one race and a legal challenge in another, could delay organizing efforts.
Stevens also said the leadership coalition has reached out to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who won reelection handily, but has not yet heard back.
“It’s been a tough last four years for this administration. I’m not sure exactly what to expect in the next four years,” said Stevens.