JUNEAU — A newly formed House majority — made up of 19 Republicans, two Democrats and two independents — finalized its membership Thursday, signaling a rightward shift in the chamber after six years of left-leaning bipartisan coalitions composed mostly of Democrats.
The four-member Bush Caucus representing predominantly Alaska Native rural areas of the state joined most House Republicans to form a caucus on the second day of the legislative session, ending weeks of uncertainty over House leadership and giving many Republicans their first experience of serving in a majority after years of getting relegated to the minority.
“It’s going to be an experience where at last we feel like we’re part of the process of governing after being in the minority for six years,” said Rep. George Rauscher, a Sutton Republican who will serve as one of two majority whips.
House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, said Thursday that the majority’s priorities would involve addressing Alaska’s fiscal situation, including through a possible cap on state spending. But leaders of the caucus balked at articulating any specifics — including on the size of the Permanent Fund dividend.
“The devil’s in the details,” said House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent. “We’ve heard ‘fiscal stability’ from the new majority. What does fiscal stability mean? Is that just a bunch of cuts to balance the budget?”
The House Republicans’ biggest challenge in advancing their own priorities could come from the opposite end of the hallway. On the Senate side, a bipartisan coalition almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats has vowed to set aside contentious social issues and focus on policy areas where members of the two parties can agree.
The different ideologies governing the two chambers could become a barrier to advancing legislation, with both chambers empowered to block bills coming from the opposite side. But lawmakers expressed optimism at the prospect of finding a middle ground.
“I’d like to think that iron sharpens iron, and in a lot of times you end up going in a similar direction,” said Palmer Republican Rep. DeLena Johnson, who will co-chair the House Finance Committee, overseeing the operating budget.
[Alaska House elects Wasilla Republican Cathy Tilton as speaker]
After closed-door negotiations, the four non-Republicans in the majority — the Bush Caucus members — agreed to join most House Republicans and break a stalemate Wednesday, avoiding prolonged deadlocks that held up the chamber for weeks in 2019 and 2021.
“Folks in rural Alaska are always fine with us reaching across the aisle to work on their behalf,” said Rep. Neal Foster, a Nome Democrat who joined the majority caucus. “There’s a long history of that.” Foster’s father, Richard Foster, also served as a Democrat in the Alaska House and often caucused with Republicans.
“In rural Alaska, the big issue is, ‘Am I going to be able to heat my home?’” Foster said, adding that basic infrastructure like water and sewer are top of mind for his constituents.
The 15-member minority includes 12 Democrats and three independents, several of whom have been members of bipartisan caucuses in previous years.
Schrage said the minority will focus on advancing an education funding increase, possibly capitalizing on disagreements among Republicans to advance their agenda.
“They highlighted their diversity as a strength. I think that is a strength for them but it’s also an opportunity for us to figure out — where can we find coalitions of individuals that are aligned on an issue?” Schrage said.
Two Republican House members, Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak and Rep. David Eastman of Wasilla, will remain outside of both the majority and the minority caucuses.
“I’m just out on my own,” said Stutes, who served as House speaker last session and broke from other members of her party to preside over a coalition made up mostly of Democrats. “I’m just taking it a day at a time, to see how things play out.”
Eastman, who recently prevailed in a legal challenge over whether his membership in the far-right Oath Keepers should keep him from serving in the Legislature, is viewed as difficult to work with by some lawmakers.
The House organization came together rapidly on the third day of the legislative session, after lawmakers were sworn in earlier in the week without a set plan for who would lead the House. In the initial hours of the session Tuesday, House members appeared unsure of how a majority would come together, and some were surprised at the speed with which lawmakers came together a day later.
With 21 Republicans in the 40-member chamber, disagreements between some GOP members had prevented them from forming a majority without bringing along some members of the opposing party.
The final outcome — the four-member Bush Caucus joining 19 of the Republicans — appeared to materialize in the late hours of Tuesday, paving the way for Tilton to prevail in a speaker vote the following morning. Legislators were still working to finalize committee assignments as of Thursday morning, but the structure of the majority was set by Thursday afternoon.
In the powerful finance committee, Johnson, the Palmer Republican, will be in charge of managing the operating budget in the House. Foster, the Nome Democrat, will work with independent Rep. Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham on managing the capital budget and legislation that comes before the committee, paving the way for the rural lawmakers to have an outsized impact.
“Most everybody would like to sit on the finance committee or be a co-chair because you can help steer the ship,” said Foster. “But I do want to emphasize that that’s what we’re doing — we’re helping steer.”
Rauscher said that despite some antagonism in the past between Republicans and Edgmon, who previously served as speaker presiding over a primarily Democratic majority, “this is a new era.”
“We’re not grudge-holders,” Rauscher said. “I don’t think there’s any kind of animosity on our side.”
For Johnson, who has been a member of the House since 2017, it’s her first time serving in the majority.
“It feels great. I mean, I think it’s a little scary,” said the former Palmer mayor. “I think the difference between being in the majority and the minority is that you have to really own the actions taken.”
The 23-member majority caucus comes with few legislators who have served in a majority before. Edgmon, Foster and Utqiagvik independent Josiah Patkotak recently served in the bipartisan House majority, but only Tilton, Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River, and Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, had served in a majority caucus before Wednesday. Saddler will serve as House majority leader and Johnson as Rules Committee chair.
[Five things to watch in Alaska’s legislative session]
‘A separate body for a reason’
Even without specific priorities articulated, some majority members acknowledged that the House’s vision could conflict with that of the Senate.
Senate President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican who leads a bipartisan coalition that has vowed to steer clear of contentious issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights, said that “time will tell” if the House majority’s priorities will align with those of the Senate.
“It might mean that the more liberal issues may never pass,” Stevens said. “There could be some things that we will pass pretty readily that they may not even want to consider. And then — the same thing — they may pass and we were not going to consider.”
Already, there were signs of the coming friction between the House and Senate.
Rep. Sarah Vance, a Republican from Homer, is set to chair the House Judiciary Committee, where she said she would prioritize an effort to repeal Alaska’s ranked choice voting and open primary election system despite repeated indications from the Senate that they were not interested in doing away with the new voting laws. Vance called repealing ranked choice voting, which appeared to favor moderates at the expense of conservative Republicans, a “No. 1 issue.”
“We are a separate body for a reason, and we’re going to move on our priorities and the will of Alaskans and hope that we can reach some compromise and agreements with the Senate,” Vance said.
Stevens said he will make an effort to communicate regularly with Tilton, the speaker, and avoid working on legislation that is doomed to fail in the House.
“It just seems to me it’s a waste of time to deal with legislation that we know is not going to pass the other body. So I’m not going to do that and I assume they probably will not want to do that either,” Stevens said. “Everything takes a lot of time. And if you find ways to just not spin your wheels when you know it’s not going to pass the other body — that’s probably the best approach to take.”
Meanwhile, Anchorage Republican Rep. Craig Johnson, who as chair of the House Rules Committee will have the power to stall Senate bills, said he did not intend to give the other chamber much thought until the end of the legislative process.
“We’re not going to pay a lot of attention to what they do until it comes down to the final (process of) putting the budget together,” he said. “We’re going to advance our agenda, what we want to do, our vision of advancing the state.”