State Rep. Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiaġvik, left, accepts the gavel from Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom after being elected speaker pro tem of the House during the opening day of the 33rd Alaska State Legislature on Tuesday. Patkotak, who has served as president pro tem during a previous stalemate in determining a House majority, is among the members Republicans are trying to lure to join a coalition controlled by their party. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

State Rep. Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiaġvik, left, accepts the gavel from Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom after being elected speaker pro tem of the House during the opening day of the 33rd Alaska State Legislature on Tuesday. Patkotak, who has served as president pro tem during a previous stalemate in determining a House majority, is among the members Republicans are trying to lure to join a coalition controlled by their party. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Session starts sans House speaker, smooth in Senate

Temporary House leader elected as another majority stalemate looms; Senate slights its minority.

The House is still without a majority, but members were at least able to agree on a temporary leader to preside over matters as the 33rd Alaska State Legislature convened Tuesday with lots of ceremonial speeches about cooperating for united purposes, despite a strong undercurrent of divisions in actual business happening at the Capitol during the day.

The session officially began at 1:03 p.m. when the state Senate was gaveled in by Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom for what turned out to be a congenial and routine 45-minute floor session. She then crossed to the other end of the second floor to gavel in the House at 2:05 p.m. for a largely similar ceremonial start, but 45 minutes into that session the first indicators of the uncertainties in the days and possibly weeks ahead emerged over attempts to nominate a speaker pro tem.

Juneau Democratic state Reps. Sara Hannan, center left, and Andi Story, center right, chat with fellow lawmakers minutes before the House was called to order at 2:05 p.m. Tuesday at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Juneau Democratic state Reps. Sara Hannan, center left, and Andi Story, center right, chat with fellow lawmakers minutes before the House was called to order at 2:05 p.m. Tuesday at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A nomination for Rep. Justin Ruffridge, a Soldotna Republican who Democratic leaders said they supported, resulted in an objection and 10-minute at ease, disrupting what some lawmakers said was an apparent bipartisan agreement. Another nomination was then made by Rep. Laddie Shaw, an Anchorage Republican on behalf of Josiah Patkotak, an independent from Utqiagvik who Republicans are hoping will join a majority coalition.

A vote on Patkotak took place first, which Democrats joined in passing unanimously once he had 21 votes to ensure his nomination.

Patkotak, who was also elected speaker pro tem during the stalemate when the 2020 session opened, said in an interview after Tuesday’s vote “I don’t think there was much orchestrated or anything” after he told acting House leaders he’d be willing to serve in the temporary role again.

“What I’m pursuing is if we can relieve the lieutenant governor of presiding over the House,” he said.

Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiaġvik, walks toward the dais in the Alaska House of Representatives Chamber to preside over the body as the speaker pro tem. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire)

Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiaġvik, walks toward the dais in the Alaska House of Representatives Chamber to preside over the body as the speaker pro tem. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire)

Patkotak presided over one more bit of contentious business during the floor session, as a motion to adjourn immediately followed his nomination. Members were divided about meeting again Wednesday or Thursday, with the former ultimately prevailing despite some lawmakers later stating there’s little chance the majority standoff will be resolved by then

“I think what it does is make us accountable to the House,” Patkotak said, explaining why he favored the earlier meeting date.

As for how long the current stalemate in forming a majority might last, “if I had a crystal ball I’d tell you,” he said.

Both of Juneau’s Democratic representatives — Sara Hannan and Andi Story — opposed the earlier date, which Story said for her part was out of consideration lawmakers who had plans for tomorrow with families and other out.of-town visitors.

The selection of a speaker pro tem made the coming days easier for Dahlstrom, who would have presided over the chamber until one was elected. She said during a news conference before the session started her staff prepared a script and she staged a few practice sessions with them involving different scenarios.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen when we get down the hall there,” she said. “I’m just going to roll with the punches.”

Dahlstrom said she altered her calendar to factor in time for a long standoff including, regrettably, skipping Arctic Winter Games in the Canadian town of Wood Buffalo, Alberta.

“If it takes 20 days or it takes 40 days that’s going to be the priority,” she said.

Alaska Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, stands near his portrait in a hallway of the Alaska State Capitol. On the first day of the legislative session, Stevens, who will preside over a body with a bipartisan majority, spoke about the importance of cooperation. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Alaska Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, stands near his portrait in a hallway of the Alaska State Capitol. On the first day of the legislative session, Stevens, who will preside over a body with a bipartisan majority, spoke about the importance of cooperation. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Smooth sailing in Senate

The opening day of the Senate went far smoother with Sen. Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, quickly elected to preside over a bipartisan majority of nine Democrats and eight Republicans after many years of Republican majorities.

While there have been contentious disputes among current senate members, especially from the three Republicans left out of the majority, the speeches Tuesday all emphasized cooperation and shared goals.

“I can’t think of any of you that hasn’t made great sacrifices to be here,” Stevens said. “We can agree and we can disagree and we can solve problems together without personal attacks.”

State Sen. Jesse Kiehl of Juneau, left, examines photos taken for his official portrait by Noah Hanson, communications director for the senate majority, in a meeting room at the Alaska State Capitol a few hours before the Senate gaveled in to officially start the 33rd Alaska State Legislature. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire) Alaska Senate Majority (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

State Sen. Jesse Kiehl of Juneau, left, examines photos taken for his official portrait by Noah Hanson, communications director for the senate majority, in a meeting room at the Alaska State Capitol a few hours before the Senate gaveled in to officially start the 33rd Alaska State Legislature. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire) Alaska Senate Majority (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

In a perhaps coincidental reference, he also talked about how Alaska’s lawmakers aren’t physically divided into separate sections, which also ended up being a relevant reference to the absence of physical barriers that were present during the beginning of last session due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We sit together with no barriers,” he said. “No barriers to discussion, to debate (and) to friendship.”

But political realities of the divisions in the upper chamber were clear at a subsequent news conference hosted by senate leadership, where Stevens was asked about the scant committee assignments so far for the three minority members.

“We wanted to get them involved, but there were some concerns about what was going on,” he said, adding one has received an appointment of significance to the transporation committee and “if these are senators we feel we can work with, we can appoint them to meaningful committees as time passes.”

• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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