A 17-member bipartisan coalition will preside over the Alaska State Senate during the coming session, as eight of the 11 Republicans prevailing in the general election opted to join with the nine victorious Democrats instead of the three highly conservative members, members of the new coalition said Friday.
The new coalition means a more moderate upper chamber after Republicans have been in charge for many years. Leadership of the state House, where a bipartisan majority has existed the past several years, is more uncertain after Republicans won 21 of the 40 seats.
“Like other bipartisan coalitions we’ll be working in the middle, not the far-right or far-left positions,” said incoming Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.
Other leadership positions include Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, as chairperson of the Rules Committee that determines what legislation reaches the floor, Sen.-Elect Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, the majority leader, Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, the majority whip, and Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson. D-Anchorage, the Legislative Council chairperson.
The Finance Committee will for the first time have three co-chairs, instead of the usual two, comprised of Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, and Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin. Additional committee chair and membership positions are scheduled to be announced during the coming weeks.
Omitted from the coalition are Republican Sens. Shelley Hughes of Palmer, Mike Shower of Wasilla and Robert Myers of North Pole. Hughes served as majority leader of the last state Senate and issued a news release advocating for a Republican majority earlier this week.
“I think this is a recognition of the reality of the last four years,” Stevens said of why the bipartisan coalition formed. “We have not been able to get several of our senators to support the budget ad we’ve had to bring Democrats in.”
Ranked choice voting, used for the first time in Alaska this year, also resulted in the election of more moderate candidates in both parties, which was another key reason for a bipartisan majority, according to its leaders.
“I think all the members of this caucus are responding to what we heard as Alaskans in this election,” Giessel said. “Voters are looking for people in the Legislature who will work together to get things done.”
The chambers more conservative members in recent years have rejected compromise with other Republicans while pursuing priorities such as maximum Permanent Fund dividends and social policy legislation. The three members of the new minority denounced the new majority in a news release Friday night.
“When 65% of Alaskans send a majority of Republicans to represent them in the Senate in Juneau, they are voting for a right-of-center majority.” Hughes said. “We want Alaskans to know that our minority organization may be small, but we will be mighty. We understand that voters have been betrayed and a very substantial majority of you cast your votes against watered-down principles, left-leaning policies and for a right-of-center majority.”
Hughes said she started discussions this summer with other Senate Republicans about possible majority arrangements and policy priorities, which continued after the election, but was essentially ignored by the new leadership.
“The proposal included a clear route to passing a responsible budget without draconian cuts along with policy priority options that were positive for Alaska and around which caucus members could coalesce,” the minority’s release states. “The inclusion of several Democrats was also part of this proposal.”
State Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat who got the highest vote percentage as the only unopposed state Senate candidate in the election, said in an interview Friday his assignments will include seats on the Finance Committee and Legislative Council. He said he did not seek any committee leadership positions when discussions about a bipartisan coalition began the day after the Nov. 8 election, but did emerge with the assignments he most sought.
“I’m going to be hopping like a frog on a hurdle,” he said. “I got what I was looking for in the organization in the place I want to be.”
Kiehl said his hope is with a coalition of nine Democrats and eight Republicans “it’s going to be almost 50-50, so I think that will really let us focus on the work and not the letters next to our names.”
The final negotiations for the coalition occurred quickly after the results of the ranked choice process were announced Wednesday evening, Kiehl said.
“After Election Day it seemed pretty clear to a lot of us we had the numbers for a group of people to work together without focusing on party,” he said. “It was also abundantly clear we had big enough egos to mess that up. There’s no surprise there were some bumps on the road.”
The new Senate majority’s top issues will be lowering energy costs, improving education and revitalizing the economy, leaders stated in a press release and subsequent press conference Friday evening in Anchorage.
“Alaska’s economic performance has been the worst in the nation for the past seven years,” Wielechowski said. “To expand economic opportunity we need smart investments in education and job training to grow our workforce. We have the tools and dedication to establish that strong economy and grow Alaska’s workforce. This is what Alaskans want. This is what Alaskans deserve.”
The new majority will still need to resolve differences about key agenda items, such as the amount of Permanent Fund Dividends, Stevens said.
“Clearly we want to have the biggest divided we can,” he said. “There’s a division of opinion in our caucus on the divided (calculations).”
A key question, in addition to the makeup of the House leadership, will be the approach Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy takes after an easy reelection victory. His first year was marked by enormous proposed budget cuts that resulted in an attempted recall, while during the past year high oil prices allowed him to preside over more generous spending plans.
“I think the governor’s approach really shifted in the last year and he was much more willing to work with people, especially with people outside regions of the Mat-Su and people with different philosophies,” Kiehl said. If he sticks with that and with this Senate majority we have we really have an opportunity to address some of the long-term and thorny issues.”
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org