Multi-partisan House majority takes shape

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, speaks to members of the Alaska House of Representatives immediately after being elected speaker of the House for the 31st Legislature on Thursday. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

The shape of the Alaska House of Representatives became clearer Friday, a day after newly-independent Dillingham Rep. Bryce Edgmon was elected speaker. And it looks like there will be 25 members in a multi-party majority, and 15 in an all-Republican minority.

It’s unusual across the country for a such bipartisan mix in a caucus — with 15 Democrats, eight Republicans and two independents. However, it’s not as unusual in Alaska, where a majority known as the Bipartisan Working Group led the Senate from 2007 to 2013.

Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton, whispers to Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, during a House floor session on Friday in the Capitol. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Friday was the first normal day of the session on the House floor, as the body received state government reports and handled other business that had been delayed during the session’s first month. The House had been deadlocked and unable to do business until Edgmon’s election.

Committees still haven’t been formed. The majority is working out who will fill its committee seats.

But the majority did announce its leadership team, in addition to Edgmon, who switched his party affiliation from Democratic to undeclared earlier in the week. Republicans Steve Thompson of Fairbanks will be the majority leader; Chuck Kopp of Anchorage will be rules chair; Louise Stutes of Kodiak will be majority whip; Jennifer Johnston of Anchorage will be an at-large leadership team member; and Tammie Wilson of North Pole will be a co-chair of the House Finance Committee. Neal Foster of Nome will be the other Finance co-chair and is leadership’s only Democrat.

There will be three other Republicans in the majority: Gabrielle LeDoux of Anchorage, Bart LeBon of Fairbanks and Gary Knopp of Kenai. All 15 Democrats and Ketchikan independent Dan Ortiz also will be in the caucus.

Wilson’s decision to switch caucuses was particularly striking. She has been a prominent conservative in the House and has advocated for spending cuts. But she has shown an independent streak and will be in a position of power on the budget-focused Finance Committee.

The leadership team hasn’t announced what brought the caucus together. But Edgmon said Thursday they’ll work on a sustainable budget that accommodates the needs and essential services important to individual constituencies and to the entire state. Johnston said she wants a budget that maintains the state’s savings.

First-year House member Grier Hopkins, a Fairbanks Democrat, said it’s good to be part of a group that has a wide variety of philosophies.

“I think the fact that our caucus has a lot of different philosophies is going to be its strength,” he said. “Similar to much of Alaska, we’ll find a lot of values that we share together, no matter what our partisan labels are.”

The majority is still trying to add more members who are currently in the minority.

The minority includes 15 Republicans, including all of those who represent Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Eagle River. Seven of the eight first-term Republicans — excluding LeBon — are in the caucus. The remaining members are Dave Talerico of Healy and Lance Pruitt of Anchorage.

Rep. Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage, talks to colleagues before a floor vote in the Alaska House of Representatives that restored former speaker Bryce Edgmon to the seat and allowed the body to organize on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Pruitt will be the minority leader. He expects the two caucuses will be able to work together.

“For me, personally, it was difficult yesterday. (I) watched a few of my friends that decided to join a different caucus,” he said. “I don’t see that in a way where we won’t have a relationship, we won’t be able to work on what’s right for Alaska.”

Edgmon said the majority was open to all members. But Pruitt said he didn’t want to join because he would have been required to vote for a budget shaped by lawmakers whose political views were too different from his own.

DeLena Johnson of Palmer, who will be minority whip, also expressed concern about joining a caucus where she would have been bound to vote for bills she might not support.

The majority hasn’t officially announced whether it will bind its members on budget and procedural votes, but the House majority of the past two years was unusual in not requiring these binding votes.

Edgmon said the committees may be announced on Monday.

KTOO and Alaska Public Media’s Andrew Kitchenman spoke with Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove about this story:

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