The House makes it to 21

The House finally breaks out of 20-20 with the election of House Speaker Louise Stutes, but there's still not an organized majority with just days left on the disaster declaration.

Happy Friday, Alaska! It’s Day 25 of the 32nd Legislature and the House is finally, finally organized… kind of… well, not really… but, hey, they have elected House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, making her the first female speaker of the House in 22 years and just the third in the history of the House.

There’s just not a majority in place quite yet.

The House has been unorganized for several weeks that have featured little more than a handful of unproductive 20-20 votes on the chamber’s organization and the occasional volley of press releases. Both sides of the issue—the House Coalition (15 Democrats, four independents and Republican Rep. Stutes) and the party-line Republicans—have been firm that it’s their side that should wield the reins of power in whatever majority coalition finally forms. Despite the posturing, the House Republicans face more internal divisions than the House Coalition with a cadre of extreme-right legislators who’ve been quiet as of late but would likely drag the House into a morass of disinformation if given the opportunity (see also the Senate Judiciary, State Affairs and Health and Social Services committees). Still, it’s likely that impasse would continue if not for the disaster declaration’s looming expiration.

It’s that Sunday night deadline that seems to be the key motivating factor for newly minted-moderate Republican Rep. Kelly Merrick to break ranks from her colleagues and support Stutes as permanent speaker but that doesn’t mean she’s committed to joining the House Coalition.

“To be clear, I have not joined the Alaska House Coalition,” she said in a statement after the vote. “However, like most Alaskans, I have been frustrated by taking the same fruitless votes day after day and I felt we could no longer afford to delay extending the Governor’s emergency disaster declaration, crafting a fiscally conservative budget, and passing the construction jobs bill.”

So that’s how we get to a speaker but no majority.

“I am tremendously honored to receive the support of my colleagues and ready to get work building new opportunities for Alaskans and confronting the difficult issues our state faces,” Speaker Stutes said in a prepared statement after the vote. “We welcome members from all political backgrounds to join our coalition.”

From what it sounds like, the potential vote for House Speaker Stutes only started to circulate as a possibility in the moments ahead of the floor session on Thursday, taking many on the Republican side of the aisle by complete surprise. It’s not entirely surprising, then, that the House doesn’t have a ready-made majority organization to declare but it sounds like those talks are underway with more energy than before. As for how it might all play out, folks are keeping their cards very close to their chest right now and I’ve been told that it’s largely in the hands of the legislators themselves to figure out. It’ll probably take the weekend.

It’s at a moment like this that I’m reminded of the advice long-time public radio reporter Dave Donaldson gave me when I was a covering my first legislative session in 2012. There was some shenanigans going on over an oil bill on the final Saturday or Sunday of session. Things were moving fast and it felt like I was running myself ragged trying to keep up with every minute’s development on the legislation. “When’s your deadline?” he asked me, according to my vague memory. “Mine’s not until tomorrow. Let’s go get a cup of coffee and let them sort it out.” Nearly a decade later, and I still find myself thinking how nice of a day it was outside the building. And, sure enough, he was right. Things were sorted out by the time we got back.

The one piece of guidance that I’ll offer for how this all plays out is this chart from the Legislature’s Uniform Rules that outlines how many seats a minority caucus is due depending on their membership. The key House Finance Committee has 11 members, House Resources has nine and most others have seven. Members crossing over to the House Coalition will have a fair bit of leverage, which means they can still maximize Republican control even if the Democrat-led coalition is the majority of the majority.

Still, the election of House Speaker Stutes was met with pretty wide approval. It means that Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, will leave the post as the chamber’s first Alaska Native speaker but Stutes has been a close ally and shares much of his priorities when it comes to defending rural and coastal Alaska from urban-driven cuts. Stutes has been a fierce supporter of the Alaska Marine Highway System, citing it as one of the reasons for sticking with the House Coalition after the election.

Meanwhile, the backlash to Rep. Merrick has been furious with several Republican legislators past and present going to social media to claim that they knew Merrick, whose husband, Joey Merrick, is the business manager of Laborers' Local 341, was a RINO all along. It’s an unsurprising turn for a party that has been hyper-focused on party purity over everything but still a bad look, especially when they’d need Merrick to remain uncommitted to joining the House Coalition if they have any hope of a Republican-led majority.

“She and Louise are not true Republicans, they are fake Republicans,” wrote former Rep. Colleen Sullivan-Leonard on Twitter.

The emergency declaration

Along with the backdrop of the internal divisions of the GOP, there’s also the whole pandemic thing that’s still going on. There’s a lot of unknowns and a lot of concern about what will happen if the state allows the current disaster declaration expire at its Sunday night deadline. There’s somewhat nebulous things like its impacts on vaccine distribution and outbreak response to the far more concrete fact the state could lose out on $8 million a month in boosted federal support for the SNAP benefits.

Without a House majority in place and without agreement in the Senate over whether an extension by law is even merited, a majority of legislators are pushing on Gov. Mike Dunleavy to extend the disaster declaration without legislative approval as he’s already done twice. To be clear, the law doesn’t permit the governor extending a disaster declaration without legislative approval but whether the courts would strike it down is another matter. By the letter of the law, the Legislature’s attorneys have argued, such an extension would be legally vulnerable but that also would take someone to bring a lawsuit. The typical group to bring such a lawsuit would be the Legislature, which currently doesn’t have a functioning Legislative Council to approve such a suit.

So it’s with that that the Legislature is trying to at least give the governor some type of cover—allowing the governor to argue that the Legislature would support his actions if it is challenged by another group—in the form of strongly worded letters. The House Coalition has already circulated a letter calling for Dunleavy to extend the declaration and Rep. Chris Tuck implored his colleagues today to join in on that effort, telling the chamber that “Alaskans are counting on us.” They’ve reportedly got a 21st supporter, according to KTOO reporter Andrew Kitchenman, but it’s not entirely clear whether that will be a the same letter or perhaps something else.

Meanwhile the Senate moved ahead with an official action that carries about an ounce or two more weight than the House Coalition’s letter. On an 11-6 vote the Senate approved a simple resolution asking the governor to issue a narrow extension of the disaster declaration while the Senate and House sort themselves out. It was the minority Democrats who were particularly critical of the plan, noting that it carried no legal weight and only served to blur the separation of powers even further.

Senate President Peter Micciche made the rare move of handing over his gavel in order to speak on the measure, imploring passage of the measure. He acknowledged that the pandemic has hit Alaska Natives and Pacific Islander communities much harder than white Alaskans. He said while no one is particularly thrilled with the mandates pushed by local communities (there’s a lot of shade aimed at Anchorage) the disaster declaration contains many measures critical to the state’s recovery on everything from the distribution of the vaccine to directed benefits.

“Please, for God’s sake,” he said.

Now everything is largely in Gov. Dunleavy’s hands. He could decide to extend it unilaterally at the very least knowing that the Legislature, his chief legal opponent, has given him a slim majority of support and isn’t in a place to sue anyways. However, he’s also downplayed the possible impacts of allowing the virus to expire during his news conference earlier this week.

Corrections

It should have said “overstate” and not “understate” in yesterday’s newsletter when I was discussing the impact University of Alaska President Pat Pitney’s experience with the Legislature has made. “It’s hard to overstate how big of a difference her experience as state budget director and legislative finance director makes.”

Price out

Just as I’m wrapping this up, Dunleavy just announced that Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price has resigned, marking the second resignation of a department head in the last two weeks. Price faced tough pushback when she was appointed by Dunleavy with questions swirling around her job performance under the Walker administration, over the fact that she had no direct experience in law enforcement and over questions about her ability or inability to pass a high-level background check.

So tough was the pushback from legislators that the governor even committed state resources to support her as part of an advertising blitz. Though that campaign wasn’t the one that went onto become grounds for the governor’s recall, it was launched alongside the political pressure campaigns that did become grounds for the recall.

From around the web

  • Alaska’s consent laws haven’t been updated in almost 40 years and it ensures that most sexual assault cases don’t result in convictions. The issue is highlighted in KNOM’s continuing series on sexual assault, which lays out that under the current law victims of rape have to very clearly make known that their consent isn’t given. If you freeze, a response that experts say is common for people who’ve been previously assaulted, the state law sees you as consenting. There’s efforts to currently update the law. From KNOM: Part 3 – Seeking Justice, Wanting Protection: Disparities in Sexual Assault Crimes in Nome

  • Mushing icon and all around great person Aliy Zirkle announced this week that the 2021 Iditarod will be her last after trying and failing many times to reach the burled arch first. Zirkle, the subject of an episode in Netflix’s “Losers,” says that “I know what it takes to win and, in the next few years, old Aliy Z. ain’t going to have it. So I might as well hang it up before I don’t have it anymore.” We’re rooting for ya, Aliy. From Alaska Public Media: Alaska mushing icon Aliy Zirkle says the 2021 Iditarod will be her last

  • The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority quietly approved a plan to spend $35 million on developing the deeply unpopular Ambler Road project. It’s the latest approval from a board that doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in conducting its business in the public’s eye or even hearing from the public for that matter. From Dermot Cole: AIDEA rushes $35 million Ambler spending plan to avoid public comment

And now for something completely different

A couple weeks ago a some friends got together to do a PowerPoint Presentation Party where everyone spends a few minutes talking about something neat with an accompanying presentation. There were very good presentations about What’s Going On, female science fiction authors, syllables, reality television during the pandemic and Alaska print makers. I talked about one of my favorite YouTube content creators (I watch a lot of YouTube) Beau Miles, an Australian outdoors nerd who has gone from exploring the world to exploring his backyard. I think this one—where he runs a marathon over the course of doing stuff around the house—is a good reminder about the value of doing stuff, making things and appreciating what you have around you.

Have a nice weekend y’all.