With just under a week to go before the legislative session kicks off in Juneau, there is no clear Majority in the Alaska House of Representatives. In fact, it’s a real mess. If you have not been paying attention, a lot has happened since the November election.
Republicans in the House did well on election night. Representative-elect Sara Rasmussen defeated Representative Jason Grenn (I – Anchorage) and Representative-elect Sarah Vance defeated Representative Paul Seaton (R – Homer). Grenn and Seaton were both members of the Democratic led House Majority. House Republicans were so excited to seize power from the Democrats they held a press conference the day after the election – announcing their new majority and a new Speaker, Representative Dave Talerico (R – Healy).
The press conference turned out to be rather bizarre. First, they only had 21 members, the bare minimum to have a majority. Second, one of those members was Representative David Eastman (R – Wasilla), who did not even attend the press conference. Eastman has been the sole no vote over 70 times in the House. Not many would describe him as reliable. With a 21 member majority, any member has a veto. We saw how difficult and contentious things got during the last two sessions for the current House Democratic Majority. They had 22 members, and after Representative Sam Kito (D – Juneau) bailed last session they only had 21.
Not long after the press conference, Eastman said he had not even decided if he was going to vote for Talerico. He needed to know exactly where Talerico stood on repealing the unpopular crime bill Senate Bill 91 and other key issues. This did not bode well for House Republicans.
Many felt that with a majority, Republicans would be able to convince some Democrats to come over by offering them coveted positions. There was one problem though. In their press conference Republicans announced a majority leader, rules chair, and co-chairs of the finance committee. This only left remaining committee chairs. However, it proved to be a moot point. It’s been over two months since the November election and the group of 19, mostly Democrats with two Republicans, Representatives Gabrielle LeDoux (R – Anchorage) and Louise Stutes (R – Kodiak), and one Independent, Representative Dan Ortiz (I – Ketchikan), have remained a solid block.
Republicans have not been so fortunate. Two events occurred that have caused their fragile 21 member majority to fall apart (they strangely continue to refer to themselves as the majority). The first is Representative-elect Nancy Dahlstrom from Eagle River taking the job as Commissioner of the Department of Corrections for the Dunleavy administration. The second is Representative Gary Knopp (R – Kenai) announcing he was bailing from the Republican Majority.
Dahlstrom taking the job with the Dunleavy administration created a vacancy for House District 13. It seems Republicans did not think this one through very carefully. Not long after it was announced that Dahlstrom took the job, former Representative Dan Saddler, who she was going to replace, resigned. He also accepted a job with the Dunleavy administration. His resignation was peculiar but also calculated.
Eagle River Republicans were going to have to send three names to Governor Michael J. Dunleavy to replace Dahlstrom. But in the meantime House Republicans would only have 20 members, not enough for a majority. By Saddler resigning they could immediately send names to Dunleavy to replace Saddler. They would have then argued that this person would also be the person who would replace Dahlstrom, therefore preserving their 21 member majority. Except the day after Saddler resigned Gary Knopp announced he was leaving the Republican Majority, effectively ending it. He said it was doomed for failure. He was not joining with the Democrats either. He was calling for a bi-partisan coalition in the House.
Now for the fun part.
After a bizarre meeting in Eagle River (See this week’s Loose Unit from December 16), Republicans sent three names to Governor Dunleavy to replace Nancy Dahlstrom. They no longer needed to replace Saddler. Dunleavy ended up choosing Sharon Jackson. Jackson worked for Senator Dan Sullivan (R – Alaska) and recently unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor.
There is just one problem. For Jackson to get confirmed, a majority of House Republicans need to vote to confirm her. This would normally not be a problem. But things are not normal in the House. With no clear majority from either side, Jackson is going to have a hard time getting seated. As it sits now Republicans have 19, the mostly Democrat group has 19, Gary Knopp is on his own, and the House District 13 seat is vacant. So it’s 19-19-1-0.
Normally after an election it is clear who the majority is. Organizing happens, positions are determined, offices are assigned, and staff are hired. As you can imagine things are a bit chaotic now. Things would be different if there was a clear majority. After the swearing in of new members, the lieutenant governor, in this case Lieutenant Governor Kevin Meyer, would gavel in the House and oversee the selection of the Speaker pro tempore. Usually this is the majority leader. The Speaker pro tempore then takes nominations and a Speaker is selected. Then the House can do business.
This is where it gets interesting for Sharon Jackson. For her to be voted on and confirmed by House Republicans, the House needs to be able to accept a message from the governor informing them that he has chosen Jackson to fill the District 13 vacant seat. Once the message is received, a vote of House Republicans would be scheduled to confirm her. The Speaker can definitely do this. There is a question if whether or not a Speaker pro tempore can receive and act on messages from the governor. One thing is certain, the lieutenant governor cannot do this. This has been confirmed by multiple sources with direct knowledge and experience with the process.
Both sides are dug in. There is speculation that they will agree to select a Speaker pro tempore in order to do basic business until a majority is formed. But due to the lack of trust on both sides, that is not even for sure. I have spoken to members on both sides. No one sees a clear path out of this. There is more on the line than just who controls the House. With redistricting coming up, one of the members of the five member board is chosen by the Speaker of the House. Get ready for what is to be a very interesting start of the session in the House. I’m sorry Ms. Jackson, this is for real.