Seventeen of Alaska’s 20 state senators and senator-elects have banded together to form a bipartisan majority coalition that members promise will be moderate and consensus-focused.
Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican and veteran lawmaker known as a moderate, will be president, returning to the role he held from 2009 to 2012.
“It’s a pleasure for me to announce that we have a very healthy majority and we’ve found a way to share responsibilities between all of us. I think we have a great organization,” Stevens said at an Anchorage news conference late Friday.
Cathy Giessel, a Republican from South Anchorage, will be the majority leader; Sen. Bill Wielechowski, a Democrat from East Anchorage, will be chairman of the Rules Committee, which determines with the president which bills are voted upon, Stevens announced. The powerful budget-writing Finance Committee will have three co-chairs, he said: Republican Sen. Bert Stedman of Sitka, overseeing the operating budget; Democratic Sen. Lyman Hoffman of Bethel, handling the capital budget; and Democratic Sen. Donny Olson of Golovin, managing other bills.
Announcement of the new organization came two days after the state Division of Election made a final count of ballots cast in the state’s new ranked choice system. That confirmed that 11 Republicans and nine Democrats will be in the Senate. For Democrats, the results represent a two-seat gain. For some Republicans, the results affirmed the value of past bipartisan work.
Those Republicans include Cathy Giessel, who served as Senate president in 2019 and 2020 but lost her seat after being criticized for working with Democrats. This time, thanks in part to the new ranked choice system, Giessel was elected to her old seat, beating the farther-right Republican who had ousted her in the 2020 GOP primary.
The new majority is, in some ways, a reprise of past Senate coalitions. The Senate was led by a bipartisan caucus from 2007 to 2012, with Wasilla Republican Lyda Green serving as president for the first two of those years.
In other ways, the new majority formalizes what had been a de facto coalition in recent years comprising Senate Democrats and the more moderate Republicans. That experience, Stevens said, is evidence in favor of a bipartisan majority over an all-Republican majority. Over the past four years, these senators have opposed unplanned draws from the Alaska Permanent Fund, as well as the deep cuts to government services that Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed in 2019.
“I think this is a recognition of the reality of the last four years. We have not been able to get several of our senators to support the budget. We’ve had to go around them and bring the Democrats in in order to pass the budget,” he said.
The three senators left out of the majority group – Sen. Mike Shower of Wasilla, Sen. Shelley Hughes of Palmer and Sen. Robert Myers of North Pole – are all conservative Republicans who voted against the budget in 2021, before voting for year’s budget. They have called for larger Permanent Fund dividends.
Stevens said he wants those three minority members to take committee positions, and that he will continue to make overtures to them to be a part of the legislative process.
In a statement, the three outsider senators criticized their Republican colleagues.
“It’s very disconcerting that my fellow Republicans in the Senate were not even willing to have a conversation about joining together for the betterment of Alaska, but more troubling than that is my colleagues defied the voters and have let Alaskans down,” Hughes said in the statement. She said the vast majority of voters supported a “right-of-center” majority.
“Alaskans are concerned about high inflation, gas, and energy prices; Biden’s anti-resource development policies which are harmful to our state; and leftist policies that hurt families and children. Alaskans’ votes for state Senate clearly indicated Alaskans preferred policies based on conservative principles that will open up new opportunities and promote a strong economy, strong communities, and strong families,” she said in the statement.
“Unfortunately, the new coalition is bound by terms counterproductive to what I ran on and seems to be focused on maintaining the status quo,” Myers said in the statement.
Shower echoed those sentiments. “Their arrangement is hard to justify considering roughly two-thirds of first place votes in the Senate races went to Republicans,” he said in the statement.
Giessel said she has been in the three senators’ position. When Stevens was last Senate president, in 2011 and 2012, she was considered one of the most conservative senators — and was one of the four members outside of the majority. That approach is not productive, she said.
“You know, what I learned from that two-year period was that nothing gets done unless you work with everyone,” she said at the news conference, recounting later successes through cooperation with Democrats. “Over the years, my health care legislation was always passed by assistance from House Democrats. It’s a learning process that we all undergo, I think, coming in with our own ideas and our own narrow perspective and realize, wait a second, there’s a whole world out there with other ideas that are just as valid.”
The bipartisan approach reflects voters’ preferences, Giessel said.
“One message that came through loud and clear is that Alaskans are looking for people in the Legislature who will work together to get something done, to get those important things done that Alaskans are waiting to have accomplished,” she said.
Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, a Democrat from Midtown Anchorage, noted that a majority of Alaska voters are unaffiliated with any political party. “So the fact that we have committed ourselves to working together, as far as I’m concerned, is representative of what the citizens of the state of Alaska want to see,” she said at the news conference.
The state House also has a history of cross-party majority coalitions, as was the case in the past legislative session. Now, with 21 of the House’s 40 seats to be held by Republicans in the coming session, the organizational makeup is yet to be determined.
Whatever the configuration of their leadership, lawmakers in the coming session will have to manage what might be future budget troubles.
Oil prices have fallen, and recent monthly estimates from the Department of Revenue forecast slips in expected money into the treasury over the current and coming fiscal years.
The most recent estimate, released on Nov. 16, forecasts total fiscal 2023 revenue available for state spending will be $372 million less than what was expected when the year’s budget was passed last spring. The November estimate also forecasts revenue for budget that begins in July 2023 will be $580.6 million less than last spring’s estimate.
Through the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30, Alaska North Slope oil prices are expected to average $94.65 a barrel. If the average for the year winds up below about $87 per barrel, the current year’s budget would fall into a deficit that would have to be filled with savings.
The current fiscal year’s budget was based on last spring’s assumed oil price average of $101 a barrel; the most recent Department of Revenue estimate adjusts that downward. Since the start of October, ANS oil prices have ranged between about $89 and $99 a barrel, according to the department.
The drop is worrisome, said senators in the majority coalition.
“We need to really start paying attention if oil drops below $90,” Stedman said in a brief phone interview after the news conference.
While all majority members have agreed to work on the budget and support the product that ultimately emerges, there is not yet agreement on how to address the challenges posed by sliding oil prices.
Wielechowski said the majority will “put our partisan differences aside” to find solutions, which he said will “require compromise on all sides.”
“We’re all going to have very different ideas on how to solve this problem, how to solve many of these problems, but I think what you’ll see – what I’m hoping you will see – is that we will all work together,” he said at the news conference.