Mostly Democratic majority forms in Alaska House, seeks to add Republicans

The Alaska House of Representatives entrance in the Capitol in Juneau, Feb. 6, 2015. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)
The Alaska House of Representatives entrance in the Capitol in Juneau in 2015. On Monday, (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

The Alaska House reached a majority caucus that’s mostly made of Democrats on Monday when Republican Rep. Kelly Merrick of Eagle River joined the coalition, giving it 21 members. The new majority is seeking to add Republican members. 

Merrick said she had wanted to have a Republican majority, but with the close division in the House, it will be necessary for people to work across party lines. 

“I am working closely with Republican Speaker Louise Stutes to form a functional, diverse caucus with many Republicans in key leadership positions,” Merrick said of the caucus, which currently has two Republicans: Merrick and Stutes.

Merrick voted for Stutes to become speaker on Thursday, but it wasn’t until Monday that she said she had joined the caucus that included the other 20 people who voted for Stutes. 

Stutes, who is from Kodiak, said she wants people from different parties to shape the majority. 

“The intent is to have a bipartisan coalition where everyone has an opportunity to participate,” she said. “It’s open to members from both sides, and I’m happy about that.”

While the 21 Republicans elected in November could have been enough to form a majority, Stutes stayed with the mostly Democratic majority she has been with for four years. She has differed with other Republicans on policy issues, including funding for the Alaska Marine Highway System. Her decision not to caucus with Republicans led to a deadlock that’s prevented other leadership positions from being filled in the first 28 days of the legislative session. 

While Stutes said all committee positions are open, she added that under current discussions, Merrick and Rep. Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham would serve as the co-chairs of the House Finance Committee, which works on the state government budget. She also said that Democratic Rep. Chris Tuck of Anchorage would serve as the majority leader, based on what’s currently being discussed. 

Stutes named seven members to the House Committee on Committees, which will nominate committee members and chairs for the House to vote on. That includes Republicans Mike Cronk of Tok, Sara Rasmussen of Anchorage, Merrick and Stutes; Democrats Neal Foster and Chris Tuck; and the Democratic-nominated independent Edgmon. 

Merrick said she doesn’t know how long it will take for the Committee on Committees to complete its work. 

“I know that Alaskans have asked us to get to work, so the sooner, the better,” she said. 

The committees won’t be finalized until the majority of the House votes to approve them. 

Cronk and Rasmussen are currently members of the Republican caucus. 

But Wasilla Republican Rep. Cathy Tilton, a senior caucus member, said Stutes didn’t consult with the caucus in choosing the Committee on Committees’ members.  She said she wanted to improve the communication between the caucuses. 

“We can definitely have better communications and be better organized,” Tilton said.

It’s not clear when the Committee on Committees will meet. 

Andrew Kitchenman

State Government Reporter, Alaska Public Media & KTOO

State government plays an outsized role in the life of Alaskans. As the state continues to go through the painful process of deciding what its priorities are, I bring Alaskans to the scene of a government in transition.

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