The Alaska Legislature convened in Juneau on Tuesday, Jan. 21. Senate leaders spent the first six hours of the day in closed-door meetings. The full Senate met late in the afternoon and ultimately voted to strip three members of their committee chairmanships.
At its core, the Senate Majority caucus fractured over the permanent fund dividend amount — though none of the members who were stripped of their leadership positions on Tuesday have formally left the caucus.
“We stood for the permanent fund dividend and right now I don’t think it looks all that good for it,” said Wasilla Republican Mike Shower.
Shower, Palmer Republican Shelley Hughes and Eagle River Republican Lora Reinbold broke from their caucus on a vote that set last year’s dividend amount. Each wants a dividend funded under the traditional formula set in state law.
Senate President Cathy Giessel says there are rules to being in the 14-member majority caucus and legislators agree to them when they join.
“You know, it’s just like sitting in an exit row on a jet. You choose to sit on that exit row. There are rules you have to follow and the flight attendant will ask you, will you comply by the rules? And you have to verbally answer ‘yes’. If you say ‘no’ that’s fine. You just get a different seat on the plane,” Giessel said.
When asked if she is the flight attendant in her metaphor, she said “I guess. Perhaps.”
“I don’t intend to be the flight attendant that says ‘alright you’re going to have to to move’,” she said. “It was actually a leadership decision.”
Those committee leadership positions control legislation and are instrumental brokers of power in the Capitol.
Reinbold says there has been a dramatic shift in power in the Senate.
“I believe this is a defining moment in the history of Alaska, where there’s a major shift to the left,” she said.
This isn’t the first time Reinbold has been punished for voting against the budget. In 2015 while she was a representative, she was stripped of most of her committee assignments after voting against the operating budget in the House.
In 2017, Hughes voted against the budget. She and then-Sen. Mike Dunleavy left the majority in order to do so.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a Tuesday morning interview that it can be difficult for legislators to balance the caucus’s needs against their own.
“They owe their loyalty to their constituents,” he said. “The caucus contract was developed to help run business. When the caucus concept runs well, it runs well. It works for everybody. Sometimes it doesn’t. But that’s a decision that, you know, the current Legislature’s going to have to decide if they’re having questions about their caucus system.”
Giessel said after the vote that she’s not expecting any more changes.
KTOO and Alaska Public Media reporter Andrew Kitchenman contributed to this report.
Correction: Sen. Lora Reinbold represents Eagle River which is in Anchorage, not the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The headline and story have been updated.