Aiming to communicate, Alaska legislators ran into problems before vote averting shutdown

Members of the Republican House minority caucus confer during a break in the floor session on June 29, 2021, in the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. The House voted to avert a state government shutown, but communication broke down during part of the day, delaying the vote. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)
Members of the Republican House minority caucus confer during a break in the floor session on Monday in the Capitol. The House voted to avert a state government shutown, but communication broke down during part of the day, delaying the vote. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

Communication between the two caucuses of the Alaska House of Representatives broke down briefly on Monday before the House voted to avert a state government shutdown.

And legislators have said successful communication will be important this summer. Gov. Mike Dunleavy has charged the Legislature with coming up with a long-term solution for the state budget. But the vote on the shutdown didn’t go smoothly. It almost didn’t happen. 

Monday’s floor session began as many others have — there was a prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the recognition of guests visiting the Capitol. 

Then the House began to consider steps to make the budget effective on July 1, preventing much of the state government from shutting down. 

But members of the Republican House minority caucus expressed concern about how things were unfolding and asked to briefly stand at ease. 

House Speaker Louise Stutes acknowledged from her chair that things weren’t going according to plan. 

“There was clearly a lack of communication between the … minority leader and myself,” she said. “We will finish this series of votes. We will then take a brief at-ease and see if the minority leader and I can bring to a head the potential sense of the House that we had … been working on.”

The sense of the House was a nonbinding agreement worked out between the two caucuses. And minority caucus members thought they already had a deal that meant they would consider the sense of the House first. Things started to go downhill for a while. 

Four minority caucus Republicans would have to change their position to prevent a shutdown. And Anchorage Republican Rep. Tom McKay was one of the key members who were on the fence. 

He described himself as “fully prepared to vote yes for the good of the state of Alaska to avoid a government shutdown, but if the other side is not negotiating in good faith, and going to play tricks, I’m voting no on the budget.”

Palmer Republican Rep. DeLena Johnson, also a minority caucus member, addressed Stutes: “Be honest, take the high road and keep your word. That’s the right thing to do. Operate in good faith. Negotiate in good faith. I’m not seeing that here, Madam Speaker.”

Members of the majority saw the votes were slipping away. 

One of the majority members — Ketchikan independent Rep. Dan Ortiz — asked for everyone to pause before the vote “to make sure that the vote that they cast … is truly one in the best interest of the state overall and, and one that … will promote pathways for communication to continue and cooperation to continue.”

Stutes then banged the gavel, which started what wound up being a 40-minute recess.

Stutes later reflected that the communication issues started that morning when she met with Minority Leader Cathy Tilton, a Republican from Wasilla.

“When I left her office … I thought she was going to call me after she had her caucus meeting,” Stutes said. “And she thought I was going to call her.”

Stutes is a Republican from Kodiak who is part of a mostly Democratic majority caucus.

Stutes credited Tilton in working to find common ground. They continued to meet during recess.

“Cathy didn’t feel that the negotiations were over,” she said. “And I’m grateful for that because we were able to iron out the stumbling blocks. And now we’re moving onward.”

For her part, Tilton said it took time for her and Stutes to get on the same page. 

“There was a — I guess — what the speaker would like to call a misunderstanding,” she said. “Although I don’t want to counteract what her misunderstanding was, I didn’t feel like there was a misunderstanding.”

Some members had expected things to go smoothly and had already booked their flights home from Juneau. But the floor session was still going.  

“I think that this is an important vote and that [flights] may be something you might want to delay if need be,” Tilton said. 

The House took the time it needed and when they were back, they shifted attention from the budget bill to the sense of the House. In the end, they agreed to form a working group that would make recommendations on a long-term budget plan. 

And that set the stage for the vote to avert the shutdown, which passed 28-10. 

House members have said that a long-term plan for the budget and permanent fund dividends will require passing a major set of state policy changes. It’s not clear whether those votes will go smoother than Monday’s. 

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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