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Alaska lawmakers begin 2017 session cheerfully, but rifts lurk below the surface

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published January 17, 2017

JUNEAU — Buoyed by friends and family, and a few patches of blue sky after days of rain, the Alaska Legislature cheerfully convened Tuesday for its 30th two-year term.

Lawmakers, including a big group of freshmen, said they were looking forward to finding agreements on how to face down Alaska's massive budget deficit.

But big rifts lurked just below the surface. The newly elected Republican Senate president, Pete Kelly of Fairbanks, declared at a Tuesday morning news conference that his caucus wouldn't look to the Permanent Fund's investment earnings account to balance the budget before putting in place a pair of conservative priorities — a budget cap and spending cuts.

"We're not going to act on the earnings reserve until there's a spending limit in place, and proven reductions," Kelly told a room packed with reporters and aides. He was referring to the Permanent Fund account that currently pays Alaskans' dividend checks, which would shrink under many of the proposals to fix the deficit by restructuring the fund.

Kelly's vow highlights the Senate's likely clash with the state House, where members of the new, largely Democratic majority coalition are less enthusiastic about new budget cuts or constrained spending.

"I hope that we can play nice in the sandbox for at least the first several weeks before we make mandates on one house or another," Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, said in an interview after the Senate's news conference.

The Capitol, in fact, did bear a little resemblance to a sandbox Tuesday as several children meandered through the halls.

Many legislators brought family members to Juneau for the first days of the session, with formal hearings on the budget set to start Wednesday morning.

On Tuesday, they spent their time on ceremony and settling in. Lobbyists worked the hallways, dispensing handshakes and hugs, while pages from the Senate practiced the glockenspiel fanfare that announces each floor session.

Just before the House's 1 p.m. swearing-in, a group of Juneau residents and police gathered in front of the Capitol for the latest event in the city's "year of kindness": a rally to encourage legislative cooperation, with handmade signs reading "We believe in you," "Listening is cool" and "Go team Alaska."

"We thought, 'What's a group that could use some kindness?' And the Alaska Legislature sprang to mind," said one of the demonstrators, Kris Sell, a Juneau police lieutenant.

"Now you're picking on us," joked the former House speaker, Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, who was standing nearby.

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Inside the building, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, a Democrat, led the swearing-in, with lawmakers raising their hands and taking the oath of office four at a time in the 40-member House and five at a time in the 20-member Senate. Fourteen freshmen were sworn in, in total — 11 in the House and three in the Senate, not counting Republican Shelley Hughes of Palmer, who started Tuesday as a state representative and ended it as a senator.

Mallott, who's of Tlingit heritage from Yakutat, wore a tunic made by women from his KwaashKiKwaan clan, with bead and ermine fur decorations. After the House's ceremony, Mallott vacated the presiding officer's chair for Rep. Bryce Edgmon, the Dillingham Democrat who, after a formal vote Tuesday, became the first Alaska House speaker with Native ancestry.

Edgmon, in his introductory speech, said he hoped to be first in a "long line of Alaska Native speakers."

"I carry that distinction with me each and every day as I go forward," Edgmon said.

Observers offered mixed assessments of the 30th Legislature's prospects, and the likelihood that this year's 90-day session would end with a grand bargain, in disarray, or even in 90 days at all. (Lawmakers have taken months of extra time to finish their work in the past two years.)

"It's going to be bloody," said Bernadette Wilson, the Republican political consultant and romantic partner of Anchorage Democratic Rep. Chris Tuck, the new majority leader. Wilson was celebrating Tuck's swearing-in with Tuck's mother, Marta, who said she was "amazed at what they have to get through this time."

"It's going to be hard work," she said.

Mike Davis, a former state representative who was in Juneau teaching a college course to students from the Bristol Bay region, was a little more optimistic.

"I think everybody has a realization that we have to do something. That's the message I've heard from both the minority and the majority," Davis said. "It's time."

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