A bipartisan group of freshman state legislators have created an informal caucus in the House to talk and collaborate across party and formal caucus lines.
The freshman class of state legislators is the largest since 2003. Seventeen members of the 40-seat House are brand-new to the Alaska Capitol.
Since the November election, newly-elected House legislators have socialized and discussed policy; the caucus was intended to continue that spirit during the session.
“Our purpose will be to discuss ideas, debate policy and share those issues most important to the constituents which encompass districts from all over the state,” said Soldotna Republican Rep. Justin Ruffridge on the House floor. “Most importantly, we will continue to build on great working relationships.”
Legislators banged their desks loudly in appreciation.
The only criteria to join is that a House legislator must not have served in the Capitol before. Republican Reps. Dan Saddler and Craig Johnson, who are returning to the Legislature after years away, were not included.
Of the 17 House freshmen, there are eight Democrats, seven Republicans and two independents. Eight are in the 23-member majority, nine are in the 16-member minority. Ruffridge will be one of the Freshman Caucus co-chairs and Anchorage Democratic Rep. Andrew Gray will be the other.
There are vast ideological differences between the freshmen but a pledge to remain respectful and stick to areas where there can be agreement, following the Senate majority’s example.
Key details about the group are still being sketched out. How often will it meet? Who exactly is interested in joining? Does it have policy goals?
Gray and Ruffridge both said the Freshmen Caucus was not a challenge to the structure of the majority caucus. But, its sheer size could make it significant.
To spend from the state’s main savings account requires a three-quarter vote in the House and Senate. The freshmen could block that. If they united behind a single cause, they could have a powerful voice.
“Because there are 17 of us, we must be included,” Gray said.
Freshmen Democrats and independents — most of whom serve in the minority — were particularly enthusiastic about the caucus. They said it could host discussions about education policy and a long-term fiscal plan. It could also be a rallying point if freshmen are ignored.
Rep. Donna Mears, D-Anchorage, said there had been long and productive conversations amongst the newly-elected legislators since a December orientation seminar. She worked with Ruffridge in an exercise that encouraged lawmakers to look at issues from different perspectives.
”That’s how we think we should be doing things here. Maybe we’re naive, but I don’t think we are,” Mears said. “I think we’re aspirational.”
Some Republicans said the Freshman Caucus would serve as a good means of communication across the aisle, but that was it.
Eagle River Rep. Jamie Allard said by email that she always encouraged fellow legislators to come together “to further the good for all Alaskans.”
Others were cagier.
GOP Rep. Stanley Wright, who was elected in November to represent North Muldoon, said he wasn’t sure if he would join. A group like that could cause divisions with incumbent lawmakers, even though it is informal, he said.
“I still think it’s going to cause some tension,” he said.
There are countless caucuses across the state Capitol with different goals and purposes. The Bush Caucus represents majority Alaska Native regions of the state and its members were key in forming the GOP-led House majority. The former Women’s Caucus spearheaded an effort to modernize Alaska’s 40-year-old consent laws. Members of the Prayer Caucus meet for Bible study.
But no one can remember a caucus united around freshmen.
“I think it’s great, absolutely,” said House Speaker Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla. She said the Legislature needed more relationship building, and she didn’t consider a freshman caucus to be a problem.
“I think you want to be careful in building caucuses that could be considered divisive, but I don’t look at this as being divisive,” she said.
Some House majority Republicans, including Tilton, have said repealing ranked-choice voting is a top priority. But Gray argued some of cohesion among the freshman class came from the centrism the new election system was meant to inspire.
“I think we are seeing the benefits of ranked-choice voting in real time,” he said.
Before the caucus was announced, the newly-elected lawmakers had already made their presence felt. Earlier in the week, the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee advanced a new pension plan bill for public safety workers on a 4-2 vote.
The vote didn’t break along party or caucus lines. The two no votes were from conservative incumbent Republicans from the majority. All four of the yes votes were from freshmen legislators: Two Democrats, a Republican and an independent. Two majority members, two minority members.
Ruffridge, who is a majority Republican, voted in support of the bill alongside Mears, who is a minority Democrat. The bill advanced to its next committee. The question now is whether that was just a one-off.