JUNEAU — The first day of Alaska’s legislative session ended with the House still in disarray — with no speaker elected and no clear idea of who will form the chamber’s majority.
While the 40-member House of Representatives began the session with lingering uncertainty, closed-door meetings and an unending string of conflicting rumors, the Senate proceeded smoothly along its pre-choreographed plan, with a 17-member bipartisan group forming a majority and promising to prioritize education funding increases and a new teacher retirement program as part of their agenda.
Members of the Legislature were sworn in Tuesday, but the House’s 21 Republicans, 13 Democrats and six independent members were unable to reach the 21-representative threshold needed to elect a speaker and set an agenda for the chamber.
A broad range of views have so far kept the Republicans from coming together. Democrats and independents, who have formed the bulk of bipartisan caucuses in the chamber since 2017, have been trying unsuccessfully so far to lure newly elected Republicans to their side. Some lawmakers said Tuesday they were open to considering a nearly equally divided coalition like the one now governing the Senate, but ongoing closed-door conversations made clear that members were not close to reaching an agreement as of Tuesday.
Without the votes to elect a speaker, the House on Tuesday unanimously elected Utqiagvik independent Josiah Patkotak to serve as speaker pro tempore, to oversee the chamber until a speaker is elected. The House then adjourned without considering nominations for speaker, agreeing to meet again Wednesday at 10 a.m. Patkotak served in the same role for the last two years.
Patkotak was a member of the bipartisan caucus that controlled the chamber last year, but is seen as one of several swing members who could serve in a majority controlled by either Republicans or Democrats.
“I’m going to be in the majority no matter what. Whichever side that is, I’m ready to play ball,” Patkotak said Tuesday after the floor session, where he wore a coat lined with wolf and wolverine fur. Patkotak said he made a promise to his people to be in the majority.
“It seemed like he was somebody who represents the values of the entire Legislature and so he seemed like the right person for that job,” said Rep. Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican who served as minority leader during the last legislative session and has been advocating for a Republican-controlled majority caucus this year.
In 2019, the House organized 31 days after the legislative session began. In 2021, it took 24 days. Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle say this year they expect the House to organize faster, even if organization still seems far off.
“There’s a lot of fresh new energy here,” Tilton said.
Before Patkotak was elected to the speaker pro tempore role, Anchorage Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson nominated Soldotna Republican Justin Ruffridge to the position. But Ruffridge’s nomination was never put to a vote, after lawmakers agreed unanimously to move forward with Patkotak.
“There’s been a really good consensus amongst the people of the Legislature that we want to work together,” Ruffridge said after the floor session on Tuesday. “What I took away from today was — you saw Republicans, Democrats and independents essentially all working together to know that we needed to have a speaker pro tem so that we could at least get on to the next day, start working on the issues at hand and getting organized.”
Ruffridge has said he is interested in serving in a coalition with “a majority of Republicans.” Josephson said Democrats and independents in the Legislature see Ruffridge as “moderate and sensible and responsible.”
“We thought this was a way to move the discussion forward, forming a coalition with likeminded people. And we see Justin Ruffridge that way,” Josephson said.
Ruffridge said Republicans have so far been united, but “the numbers bear out that something needs to form where there is somebody that doesn’t necessarily have the same letter next to your name potentially, just in order to get organized and get moving.”
After Patkotak was elected, Josephson made a motion to adjourn until Thursday. But that motion was amended to Wednesday at 10 a.m. after Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, moved an amendment to that effect. That amendment passed 21-19, with most Republicans in favor and all Democrats opposed.
“It is our job to be here and be working and get our job done,” said Tilton.
Josephson said he predicted a speaker would not get elected Wednesday.
“Rather than wasting the public’s time by coming on to Gavel to Gavel and seeing a ‘failed session’ where there is no successful nomination of a speaker, we thought we’d just adjourn until Thursday,” Josephson said.
Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom, a Republican former state House member who presided over the House and Senate before they elected their leadership, urged the chambers to act in a bipartisan manner.
“Not long ago, 20 years ago in fact, I had my first day as a representative in this body,” Dahlstrom told members of the House. “I didn’t yet know just how much we all had to work together as a team. I thought maybe some things I could do on my own. So I had some tough lessons to learn about teamwork.”
‘We sit together’
Soon after Dahlstrom gaveled in the Senate, just after 1 p.m., Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary Stevens was elected to serve as president of the Senate, ushering in the chamber’s first bipartisan coalition since Stevens last presided over the chamber in 2012.
Stevens will preside over a coalition made up of nine Democrats and eight Republicans.
“We may disagree. And in fact we will most certainly find areas of difference. But we know that we have to work together to accomplish the enormous tasks and challenges ahead of us. Ten senators of any party can accomplish very little. Everything we do here demands at least 11 of us to come to an agreement across party lines,” Stevens said.
“When you visit our federal Capitol in Washington, D.C., you see the aisle that divides Republicans and Democrats. You see the same thing in many state legislatures, but not here in Alaska. Our state senate has no such division. Virtually every senator in this room, if you look to your left or to your right, you will find a member of the other party. We sit together,” Stevens added, looking over a room of lawmakers wearing corsages pinned to their lapels.
Members of the majority then confirmed their previously agreed upon committee assignments, leaving three of the most conservative Republicans in the Senate — the only non-majority members — with only one committee assignment each, rendering them largely powerless amid the broad governing coalition.
The key Senate leadership positions, including former Senate president Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, serving as majority leader, were announced publicly when the Senate organized in late November. A press conference after the floor session saw the majority coalition reiterate some of its policy priorities: an education funding increase and a more generous retirement scheme for state employees.
Stevens was the only member of the chamber nominated for the position of president. Without objections from any of the members, Stevens was elected as Senate president to applause without a vote.
Of the three minority members, only one — Sen. Robb Myers, R-North Pole — was appointed to a standing committee that meets regularly. The other two — Shelley Hughes of Palmer and Mike Shower of Wasilla — were only assigned to special committees. The two have had acrimonious relationships with members of the now-majority in the past.
“There were some concerns about what’s been going on,” Stevens said. “That’s something that we can revisit and I’m hoping we can. If things work, if we feel that there are senators that we can work with, then we can appoint them to meaningful committees as time passes.”
Shower was absent from the chamber on Tuesday and did not respond to requests for comment on his absence. Other members of the Senate were unaware of the reason for his absence or when he would arrive, but Stevens said he would swear in Shower when he arrives in Juneau.
Hughes, who voted along with Myers against adopting the committee assignments, said the Senate minority members would try “to make the absolute best” out of their position in the chamber.
“There’s some wonderful colleagues that are in the majority, and I want to work with all of them. But they’re not making it easy,” Hughes said.