Speaker of the House Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, speaks with reporters on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021 after lawmakers were able put together enough of a coalition to organize itself and begin legislative work. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Speaker of the House Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, speaks with reporters on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021 after lawmakers were able put together enough of a coalition to organize itself and begin legislative work. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

House organizes, speaker promises to make up for lost time

Stutes says votes are there, but didn’t ID lawmakers

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Reps. Sara Hannan and Andi Story, both Juneau Democrats, were serving as committee chairs for the first time. Both representatives had the same committee assignments in the last Legislature. The Empire regrets the error.

The Alaska House of Representatives finalized its organization Thursday morning, allowing the body to fully begin legislative work.

A tenuous voting bloc of 21 has formed, but some members aren’t fully committed to the caucus, leaving open the possibility of further deadlock. The committee assignments were approved 31 days after the Legislature convened.

House Speaker Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, was emphatic that a majority of 21 members had agreed to vote together on procedural votes and to vote on the budget when it comes before the body.

But who exactly made up that majority of 21, Stutes wouldn’t say.

“I don’t want to put anyone in the hot spot,” Stutes said, when pressed to name the final members of the majority.

House members struggled to organize a leadership heading into the new session and spent weeks deadlocked between 20 Republicans and a coalition of 20 Democrats, independents and a lone Republican, Stutes.

Stutes was elected speaker of the house on Feb. 11, with Rep. Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River, casting the deciding vote. With Stutes as speaker the coalition was in control of committee assignments, a crucial bargaining chip, and was able to convince Merrick to join the coalition.

Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, cast her vote for the coalition’s committee assignments Thursday but told reporters she was not joining the coalition. Rasmussen told reporters she would be voting in the interest of her district and had voted in exchange for a seat on the House Finance Committee.

The House approved the coalition’s committee assignments Thursday in a 22-17 vote, with all Republicans, except for Merrick and Rasmussen, voting against. Rep. Mike Prax, R-North Pole, was absent from the vote.

Standing committee chairs are almost entirely controlled by either Democrats or independents. Merrick is the only Republican with a chair position. She will serve as co-chair with Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, on the House Finance Committee.

[House on verge of organizing]

Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, is co-chair of the House Education Committee and Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, is co-chair of the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee, positions they both held last year.

But the coalition’s control of committees was hard-won. Rep. Garan Tarr, D-Anchorage, sent a letter to the coalition criticizing the leadership and giving demands for remaining with the coalition. Tarr said an extension of the pandemic emergency declaration and serious consideration of personal legislation were conditions of her joining.

Rasmussen said she wasn’t aware of any other representatives planning to similarly leave the caucus.

“I haven’t heard of anyone else yet but I encourage anyone else who wants to have an opportunity to kind of think for themselves and make their district their No. 1 priority,” she said.

Last week Stutes had said the coalition was “21 strong” but in the intervening days, “life happened,” she told reporters.

“You have a lot of strong personalities (in the Legislature),” Stutes said, blaming the last-minute changes on “human-ness.”

Reps. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer, and Laddie Shaw, R-Anchorage, were named minority leader and minority whip respectively. Reps. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, and Matt Clayman, D-Anchorage, will serve in those positions on the majority side.

With committees finalized, the House was able to start legislative work. Over 100 bills were introduced Thursday, many of them prefiled before the start of the session. No House committee meetings will be able to take place until next week, but the House is scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. Friday.

Stutes said the House would be aggressive in its work schedule to make up for time lost while members were unorganized. That included the possibility of working weekends, she said.

Speaking against the committee assignments, Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, said that for two election cycles Alaskans had elected a majority of Republicans to the Legislature, but that was not reflected in the proposed assignments. Eastman made similar objections to the formation of a special House Ways and Means Committee, the purpose of which was already covered by the Finance Committee.

“What Alaskans really want is people working together and getting things done for the state,” Stutes said Thursday afternoon in a news conference. “In my experience, they want to see us moving the state forward.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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