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Alaska's Republican Senate majority welcomes another Democrat

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 10, 2016

JUNEAU — The Republican-controlled Alaska Senate majority caucus announced Wednesday it had added a member who jumped ship from the minority: Donny Olson, who represents Northwest Alaska.

Olson, a Democrat from the village of Golovin, asked to join the 15-member majority, said Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna.

The move, announced in a statement Wednesday morning, reduces the Senate Democratic minority to four members — so few that the majority could deprive them of seats on committees under the Legislature's rules. The minimum size of a minority, according to the rules, is one-fourth of the 20-member Senate.

A spokeswoman for the Senate majority, Michaela Goertzen, said there were no plans to change the committees' composition. But Olson will keep his spot on the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which would leave it now without any representation by the Democratic caucus.

Olson becomes the second Democratic member of the majority caucus, joining Lyman Hoffman of Bethel.

Olson said in an interview Wednesday that he switched because it would give him more leverage in budget discussions — and he only did so, he added, after he was promised the Democratic minority wouldn't be stripped of its staff.

He also said he wouldn't change any of his positions on legislation or specific issues.

"I'm not here to change offices — I'm not here to make any significant changes," he said. "I can have a voice at the table when we're sitting there in the majority caucus saying, 'This is really what's happening here.'"

The news of the caucus switch was first reported by KTUU.

In Wednesday's statement from the Republican majority, Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said Olson would add depth and a "diverse view" to the majority.

Meyer's statement didn't mention an offer from the whole minority Democratic caucus earlier this week asking the GOP majority to create a unity government of all 20 Senate members and all 40 House members.

In a prepared statement, the Senate's minority leader, Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said she was disappointed to lose Olson from her caucus.

"But we acknowledge every legislator's responsibility to make decisions which they feel are in the best interest of their district," the statement quoted her saying.

The statement added that the majority caucus would benefit from the influence of a new member who supports expansion of the public Medicaid health-care program — a move many majority members resisted before Gov. Bill Walker unilaterally expanded the program last year. The Legislature has sued Walker, seeking a ruling that he overstepped his authority.

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