New House majority boosts Southeast lawmakers’ power

The new bipartisan House majority caucus. The leaders, seated left to right, include Majority Leader Chris Tuck, Rules Chairwoman Gabrielle LeDoux, Speaker Bryce Edgmon, and Finance Co-Chairman Paul Seaton. Nov. 9, 2016. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO/APRN)
The new bipartisan House majority caucus includes Juneau’s Sam Kito III, far left, Juneau’s Justin Parish, second from the left, Sitka’s Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, center, and Ketchikan’s Dan Ortiz, second from the right. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO/APRN)

After years in the legislative minority, all Southeast representatives are in positions of power.

The new bipartisan House majority and Republican-led Senate majority have named regional lawmakers to chair six committees. There, they can influence budgets, pass legislation and kill bad bills.

It’s been a rough road for Southeast legislators and their constituents under the outgoing legislative leadership. Only two of the region’s six lawmakers had key roles in their chamber’s organizations.

That’s changing.

“I think this bipartisan majority is only a good development for the interests of Southeast Alaska,” said Ketchikan independent Dan Ortiz, one of four Southeast representatives in the House’s new organization.

House District 36 Rep. Dan Ortiz addresses thea Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce in 2014. (Photo by KRBD)
House District 36 Rep. Dan Ortiz addresses the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce in 2014. (Photo by KRBD)

He’ll have a seat on his chambers’ Finance Committee, which, with its Senate equivalent, writes state budgets.

Ortiz said he’ll do what he can to protect and advance the region’s priorities. They include the Alaska Marine Highway System and the Department of Fish and Game.

But there are limits.

“We’re not in a period where I’m going to be part of handing out lots of goodies for Southeast Alaska, that’s for sure. But hopefully, I’ll be able to do the best I can at protecting the interests as much as possible of Southeast Alaska,” said Ortiz, who is headed into his second term.

The outgoing Southeast Finance Committee member is Juneau Republican Cathy Muñoz, who lost her re-election bid.

Southeast’s newest lawmaker, Juneau Democrat Justin Parish, won that race. He’ll start off his first term sharing the chairmanship of the Community and Regional Affairs Committee. It considers bills related to local government and rural issues.

“From my seat there and with the help of my co-chair, I’ll able to quash any possible thought of a capital move,” he said.

Justin Parish, Cathy Munoz and Sam Kito III at Juneau Votes Statehouse Debate 2016 10 13
House District 34 Rep.-elect Justin Parish, right, speaks at a candidate forum as incumbent Reps. Cathy Muñoz and Sam Kito III listen Oct. 13, 2016. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Parish, who lived in Tenakee and Haines, said he’ll also try to help small communities keep the support they have.

Sitka Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins begins his third term heading up the new majority’s State Affairs Committee. It handles many state government issues.

So he’ll also be in a position to slow or block capital- or Legislature-move measures, as well as other bills the region opposes.

“Daylight savings time has come up in the past as an issue that for many in Southeast has been a bit of a bugaboo. And that falls within the jurisdiction of the committee,” he said.

Many Southeast tour businesses oppose the change because it would reduce the number of summer evening daylight hours.

Juneau Democratic Rep. Sam Kito III, elected to his second full term, will chair two committees.

One is Labor and Commerce, where he’ll investigate Alaska’s rising insurance costs.

“I’m looking at working … with other states and with national organizations to try and see if there are ways we can capitalize on things that they’ve done, as well as possibly enlarging our pool of health-care recipients,” he said.

Dennis Egan, Bert Stedman, Donny Olson
Sens. Dennis Egan, left, Bert Stedman, center, and Donny Olson talk on the floor of the Alaska Senate in 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Kito will also chair the Legislative Council, which oversees House and Senate business between sessions. He said he’ll look for ways to lower the cost of legislative operations.

One other Southeast lawmaker has a chairmanship as part of the Senate’s GOP-led majority.

Sitka Republican Bert Stedman, headed into his fourth term, will head up the chamber’s Transportation Committee.

The panel will likely address a plan for changing the state ferry system’s management structure. Stedman said he’ll proceed cautiously to protect the system.

“The concern there is there will be groups within the legislative body that wouldn’t be concerned about whether the marine highway functions or doesn’t function and to just get rid of it,” he said.

Southeast’s other senator, Juneau Democrat Dennis Egan, is in the chamber’s minority. He will sit on its Labor and Commerce and Transportation Committees. He’s in the middle of his second full term.

Stedman said the new House majority’s rural and coastal leadership will help balance out the Senate’s mostly urban focus.

Rep. Kreiss-Tomkins said it will also try to reduce partisanship – especially in his committee.

“I’d really love the first bill that we hear to be a minority Republican bill. Because I think that upends legislative tradition that you try to turn your eyes away from those that don’t happen to be in power at any given time, even if the ideas are good,” he said.

Other committee assignments will be announced at a future date.

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