The election process was radically different and lingering disputes in the aftermath perhaps more colorful (sedition not usually being a part of the conversation). But the outcome for the Alaska State Legislature appears to be the same: a House majority whose makeup won’t be known at the start of the session next month and might not be for weeks afterward.
The candidates currently leading after certification last week seemingly would result in a 20-20 split among Republicans and a coalition mostly of Democrats, with the majority question hinging largely on three races where the winner is still unknown. Two races involve lawsuits challenging the supposed winners eligibility, the other a recount filed this week in a race separated by seven votes.
In addition, a majority coalition could swing on the whims of one or more “on-the-fence” House members willing to join whatever group offers better committee and other incentives.
“Conversations are ongoing daily,” House Speaker Louise Stutes, a Kodiak Republican who has been among those crossing over to form majorities with Democrats and independents, stated Tuesday in a written response to questions from the Empire. “There are some outstanding issues, including several lawsuits and a recount, that will most likely have to be resolved before meaningful headway can be made on organization. I’m hopeful that once those issues are resolved, we can organize before the beginning of session. Alaskans expect us to be ready to work at the start of session and to get the job done on time.”
The uncertainties in whatever form they evolve into are a familiar scene for District 4 Rep. Andi Story, a Juneau Democrat who saw similar stalemates in 2018 and 2020 before bipartisan majorities were formed. Story was part of the majority in the past sessions.
Statements by Stutes and other House leaders suggest they expect another bipartisan majority next year, and while Story said “I’m not going to put odds on that” happening by the scheduled start of the session, she also said “I am optimistic.”
“I think we’ve done a good job in the last four years protecting essential services and giving a robust Permanent Fund dividend,” she said. “I hope we can do that again. I think those are goals that many Alaskans share.”
Another reason for optimism for Story going into next session is the state Senate’s bipartisan majority of nine Democrats and eight Republicans, instead of the Republican majority that has been in the upper chamber for years, along with just-reelected Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy so far seeming more willing to work with the entire Legislature than at the onset of his first term that saw numerous controversial and partisan proposals.
“I think the governor is really willing to work across the aisle.” she said.
An indicator of that came during his swearing-in ceremony when he referred to a frequent campaign theme of boosting education funding, said Story, co-chair of the House Education Committee during the past session. She said that while lawmakers were able get a $57 million one-time funding increase approved this year, she plans revive a failed attempt to make that increase – including adjustments for inflation – a permanent part of the state’s education funding formula.
Another ongoing effort will be addressing workforce shortages in part by reinstituting a Defined Benefit Program for state employees, even though it would be a new “tier five” plan involving both employees and state in “shared risk” rather than previous more employee-friendly ones, Story said.
“There is a lot of of interest in that on both the House and Senate side, and the governor would be open to that,” she said.
Whether the new House majority remains interested in passing such legislation may depend on the outcome of the following pending races:
– Rep. David Eastman, a Wasilla Republican, is awaiting the outcome of a lawsuit challenging his eligibility based on a disloyalty clause in the state Constitution because of his membership in Oath Keepers, a far-right militia whose leader was convicted last week of sedition for his role the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Eastman, who has been in the Legislature since 2017, has frequently clashed with his own party members and is widely seen as an obstacle to forming a Republican majority. If Eastman loses at the trial scheduled later this month, which some media reports have suggested is unlikely, second-place finisher Stu Graham, who is perceived as a more moderate Republican, would be the winner.
“I feel it is inappropriate for me to comment on who would or would not be included in our coalition,” Stutes stated Tuesday. “Our tri-partisan caucus has had political disagreements these last six years, but underneath that has been a deep mutual respect for each other, the political process, and the goals we’re trying to achieve. I will say that anyone joining our coalition would have to share that same respect and willingness to put aside political differences for the good of the state.”
– Rep.-elect Jennie Armstrong, an Anchorage Democrat, is facing a residency challenge filed this week based on an allegation she was not a state resident for three years before filing to run, although as with Eastman the chances of success are seen as questionable. If the challenge is successful Dunleavy may be ordered by the court to pick a Democratic replacement who would need to be confirmed by a majority of House Democrats, or he may be able to declare Republican Liz Vazquez the winner as the second-place finisher.
– A recount is pending for the seat held by Rep. Tom McKay, an Anchorage Republican, who leads Democrat Denny Wells by seven votes following certification of the election. Wells officially requested the recount this week, which the state will pay for due to the closeness of the race, and there is no set deadline for when the process must be completed. A recount following the midterm election in 2018 was completed in early January 2019.
Perhaps the biggest other unknown among incoming House members who might opt for what majority makes the best offer is Rep. Josiah Patkotak, an Utqiagvik independent. He joined the bipartisan House coalition in 2021 after winning his first election, but told the Alaska Political Report after this year’s election that as a strong supporter of resource development he may opt to join a Republican leadership.
“I have to take a lot of things into consideration. For example, what my role would look like in a caucus and how the caucus views resource development,” he said.
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org