Alaska Legislature

A month into the legislative session, the GOP-dominated House majority is still deciding priorities

JUNEAU — Almost a month into Alaska’s legislative session, the new Republican-dominated House majority caucus is still trying to determine its priorities.

The House organized on the third day back in January, with the majority caucus made up of 19 Republicans, and two Democrats and two independents from the Bush Caucus. At that time, the majority’s agenda was narrow: implement a tighter legislative spending cap as part of a long-term fiscal plan and repeal the state’s new ranked-choice voting system.

In the Senate, it’s been a different story. The 17-member bipartisan coalition, which formed in late November, started the session in January with a clear set of goals: substantially increase school funding and enact a new retirement scheme for public sector workers to address a recruitment and retention crisis.

House Speaker Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, said part of the House majority’s challenge in setting its agenda is that it started late and that it has eight freshmen in the 23-member caucus. The Legislature’s freshmen class is the largest since 2003, and Tilton said there has been a learning curve for newly-elected lawmakers to get up to speed with the legislative process.

“Now, I think we can focus on what we want to get out of the session,” she said Thursday.

Another challenge is that the caucus’ diverse set of members have sharp differences on key issues, such as the size of the budget, the Permanent Fund dividend and school funding.

“To come up with absolutes on priorities is really hard, the priority is to figure it out,” said Sutton Republican Rep. George Rauscher.


House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, an Anchorage independent who leads the 15-member minority made up mostly of Democrats, said his caucus’ priorities are similar to the Senate’s. He is not surprised about the lack of a clear agenda from the House majority.

“As I’ve told people from the very beginning, I have not seen a vision, a plan, a path forward articulated,” he said.

House majority leadership held a strategy session last weekend to determine its legislative agenda, but there were no decisions made about big-ticket items. Instead, there were discussions about what are one-year goals and what could take two years.

Tilton said one-year goals include passing a non-binding resolution introduced Friday to urge President Joe Biden and the Department of the Interior to approve the Willow Project. Another is passing the governor’s new legislation to increase penalties for sex trafficking.

Education funding, a new public retirement scheme and a long-term fiscal plan are all in the two-year basket, Tilton said. But she noted passing those bills would be difficult in 2024 — when all 40 House members are up for reelection — as election years have historically seen fewer big-ticket bills pass with lawmakers eager to return to their districts to campaign.

On school funding, the House majority is divided between moderates who think substantial increases are needed after years of flat funding, and conservatives who have expressed consternation with the Senate’s plan to increase the state’s per-student funding formula — known as the Base Student Allocation or BSA — by $1,000 at an estimated cost of $257 million per year.

Eagle River Republican Rep. Jamie Allard, co-chair of the House Education Committee, has a different tack. She posted to social media Thursday that she would hold hearings next week into school choice — where state funding could be used for private schools.

There have been calls for a deeper look into education policy and concerns among conservatives that substantially increasing funding may not lead to improved outcomes. Alaska students have regularly scored among the bottom of states in reading and math assessments.

“We have to figure out what the problem is and attack the problem,” Rauscher said.

The caucus, broadly, wants to discuss increased education accountability. Tilton said there could be an online system to track school district spending as it can be difficult for the Legislature to know where state money goes.

“We don’t have as much oversight as people think,” she said.

But the idea runs counter to the traditional Republican notion of local control. Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said the Legislature is limited under the current structure, which empowers school boards to make allocation decisions.

“Honestly, we’ve tried that for years in this building to tie strings to education funding, and it’s pretty hard for us to do that,” he said.

Stevens said the Senate’s $1,000-boost to the BSA may not pass the Senate itself, but he hoped a substantial, permanent funding increase would be approved this year.

If the House fails to do that, there are already discussions about boosting funding for one year after teachers and school administrators described a system in crisis. The Legislature approved an additional $57 million in one-time school funding in 2022, and if that was not matched again, the BSA would effectively be cut by $190.

On the Permanent Fund dividend, the House majority is almost equally dividend between those who want a statutory PFD at $3,900, and those who support something different. Some majority members campaigned for a full dividend, but veteran lawmakers said they will likely need to compromise with historic volatility in oil prices and a desire not to overdraw the Permanent Fund.

Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said reducing this year’s dividend to roughly $1,300 would allow the state to cover the Senate’s education budget boost, all municipal bond debt and a projected $300 million-plus deficit baked into the governor’s budget proposal.


Discussions are set to begin soon in the Senate about a new public sector retirement scheme, but there is agreement with the House that that effort is virtually certain to take longer than a single session. The Legislature abolished pensions for new state employees in 2006 amid a multibillion-dollar shortfall in the pension fund.

Freshman Wasilla Republican Rep. Jesse Sumner is taking the lead on addressing recruitment and retention issues in the public and private sectors. He is planning on establishing a taskforce — potentially with the Senate — to study workforce issues, but he has few details on how that might work.

The budget-making process is just starting to pick up speed in the House. Co-chair of the House Finance Committee, Rep. Delena Johnson, R-Palmer, said the goal would be to deliver a sustainable budget. But there are differences among the majority about what that should look like; veteran legislators say deep cuts are unlikely.

In prior years, majority members could be punished with loss of staff or committee assignments if they voted against the final budget, which is known as a “binding caucus.” Former legislator Lora Reinbold was expelled from her caucus for doing that in 2015. But it’s unclear what the current rules are for House members who vote against the budget or the dividend.

To take a deeper look at the budget’s cost drivers and implement a long-term fiscal plan, the new majority borrowed an idea from the former bipartisan majority coalition. Two years ago, the House reestablished the Ways and Means Committee, over objections from most Republicans.

Nikiski Republican Rep. Ben Carpenter voted against reestablishing the committee then, arguing that it would be “an additional layer of bureaucracy.” Now, he is chair of the same committee with budget hawk Donna Arduin as his legislative aide.

“If we could get a fiscal plan in line, we could get these other things sorted,” Tilton, said.

Measures to address social issues, like restricting or ending abortion access, have not been introduced yet by GOP House majority members. The Senate majority has indicated that it is not interested in tackling divisive social issues or repealing ranked-choice voting.


“At the end, we have to get together or we make no progress at all,” Stevens said.

The legislative session is constitutionally required to end by midnight of May 17.

Sean Maguire

Sean Maguire is a politics and general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Juneau. He previously reported from Juneau for Alaska's News Source. Contact him at