On Monday night, the day before the 32nd Alaska Legislature gaveled in, the House and Senate had still not organized. But on Tuesday morning Senate Republicans hastily announced they had formed a majority with Senator Peter Micciche (R – Soldotna) as Senate President. This was the culmination of months of negotiations between Republican senators, who are deeply divided on critical issues facing Alaska.
A lot can happen in politics in a week. And last week was no exception. Last week a bipartisan coalition in the Senate had all but been announced. To form a majority in the Senate you need 11, and they had 12. But something happened that made the deal fall apart.
Because Senate Republicans, who number 13, are so divided on the Permanent Fund Dividend and the binding caucus, they were unable to form a majority after the election. Moderate Republican Senators that include Senators Bert Stedman (R – Sitka), Gary Stevens (R – Kodiak), Click Bishop (R – Fairbanks), Natasha von Imhof (R – Anchorage), and Josh Revak (R – Anchorage) struggled to form a majority with the more conservative Senate Republicans.
Stedman, who leads the moderate group, was also in talks with Senator Tom Begich (D – Anchorage), who leads the Senate Democrats. They had a coalition deal in place last week that included the five moderate Republicans above and the seven Senate Democrats. The leadership positions in the coalition were:
- Senate President – Gary Stevens
- Majority Leader – Bill Wielechowski (D – Anchorage)
- Rules Chair – Tom Begich
- Finance Co-Chairs – Bert Stedman and Senator Donny Olson (D – Golovin)
But not long after the deal was done, and before it was announced, the chair of an important legislative committee became an issue. Senator Scott Kawasaki (D – Fairbanks) wanted to be chair of the powerful Legislative Budget and Audit Committee (LB&A). LB&A is a joint committee, and the chair rotates to the Senate this legislature. In the coalition deal the committee would have been chaired by von Imhof. Once Kawasaki decided he wanted that, the problems began. There were other issues too. Some of the moderate Republicans were getting cold feet about being in a coalition with Democrats.
Once the coalition started to fall apart, the moderate Republicans, referred to as the “Biden 5” by some of the conservative Republicans, had leverage with the conservatives. The conservatives could organize with them and be in the majority, or the moderates could go back to the Democrats and work it out. The conservatives relented and agreed to form a Republican majority.
This gave the moderates the same kind of power they would have held in a coalition. Stedman is still Co-Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and his other Co-Chair is Bishop. Stevens is the Rules Chair, who decides what bills go to the floor for a vote. And von Imhof is the chair of LB&A.
The Republican Majority added Senator Lyman Hoffman (D – Bethel) the day after they formed. Hoffman was given a seat on the Senate Finance Committee. The Democrats were smart. They encouraged him to join the majority. Now there are three Democrats (Hoffman, Wielechowski, Olson) on the seven member Senate Finance Committee. If Hoffman would have stayed in the minority, Democrats would have only had two seats on Finance.
Hoffman is probably the biggest winner. Not only did he get a seat on Finance, he also got seats on LB&A and Legislative Council. This caused tension with Senate Democrats in the minority, who were prevented from having seats on LB&A and Legislative Council by the Senate Majority. The rule says members of joint committees have to be from both political parties. In response, the Democrats protested and ran amendments to add minority Democrats to the committees. The Senate Majority argued that since Hoffman is a Democrat they are following the rules. Both amendments to replace Hoffman with minority Democrats failed 6-13.
Either Hoffman negotiated those committee positions or the majority decided they did not want minority members on those committees. Either way, the start of session for the Senate is not nearly as copacetic as it was two years ago. With only 14 in their majority, Republicans will need at least one vote from the minority to get to 3/4 to access what’s left of the Constitutional Budget Reserve and other crucial 3/4 votes. And that’s assuming all of the members vote yes, which is dubious at best. Their caucus is a “caucus of equals,” which seems to indicate there is no binding agreement on the budget or procedural votes. Micciche tried to coax Senator Jesse Kiehl (D – Juneau) into joining the Senate Majority, which would have got them to 15. But Kiehl is sticking with the Democrats.
The last Senate Majority gave minority Democrats seats on important joint committees and also chairs of budget subcommittees. If the current Senate Majority keeps on the path they are on, the Senate could be much more contentious than it has been the past two years. The next few weeks will be key in determining how the Senate will function.