Day 2: No House Speaker or House Speaker vote, yet
Meanwhile, it's kumbaya for the Senate.
It’s Day 2 of the legislative session, everyone.
Here’s what you need to know to get through the day: The House doesn’t have a speaker, and it’s not because of a narrow vote. It’s because no one is quite willing to put it to a vote at all, highlighting just how uncertain the whole situation is right now. Still, it was sure interesting to see Rep. David Eastman getting some screen time—and backup from the Republicans who had apparently been excluding him. Meanwhile, things went real smoothly for the Senate where a 17-member supermajority made electing Senate President Gary Stevens a breeze. The Senate Majority even treated itself to a nice little press conference. Also, the daily schedule!
Current mood: ☕
Correction: AN unorganized start
The House avoids a vote, for now
When I said we’d learn a lot about where things in the House stood once the House took its initial votes on House Speaker on Tuesday, I was assuming that there would be a vote for House Speaker on Tuesday. There wasn’t.
Following the swearing in of legislators, the House unanimously voted to make Utqiagvik independent Rep. Josiah Patkotak the House Speaker pro tempore, a position with limited powers intended to oversee the election of the House Speaker. Patkotak is one of the House’s swing votes, and he’s been open about the fact that he’ll be a part of whatever majority ultimately forms in the divided House.
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson nominated freshman Soldotna Republican Rep. Justin Ruffridge for the position (Ruffridge is seen as one of the few moderate Republicans who could be the core of a truly bipartisan majority), but Patkotak’s nomination was put to a vote first.
Regardless of who’s holding the gavel of speaker pro tempore, it sounds like there’s considerable negotiations going on and things are far from a done deal in any direction. Unlike previous years, it doesn’t look like anyone is raring to put the House Speaker vote to the test quite yet.
Eastman, not quite excluded
Perhaps one of the bigger surprises of the day was that Rep. David Eastman, the extreme-right Republican who would have been disqualified from serving in the Legislature under a strict reading of the Alaska Constitution’s disloyalty clause, didn’t seem quite as excluded from Republican activities as all the talk has suggested he would be. During the break during the Patkotak election, he was huddling up with Republican Reps. Craig Johnson, Jamie Allard, Dan Saddler and George Rauscher.
When it came time for the House floor session to end, Rep. Josephson moved to return on Thursday given the state of negotiations. Eastman objected to argue they needed to meet on Wednesday under the rules and Craig Johnson backed him up, despite Reps. Sara Hannan and Josephson pointing out that’s not actually what the rules say.
Patkotak put it to a vote, ultimately joining the Republicans in voting to return at Eastman’s preferred time of 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Eastman’s 1-0, so far.
Does it matter? Probably not all that much. A vote for a return time isn’t quite the same as locking in a speaker, but it certainly raises the specter of a 21-member majority that would essentially gift Eastman—or any other member—a veto over anything they hope to get done this session. Probably why they don’t want to put it to a vote quite yet, but still, it’d make for a tough, tough session ahead.
Follow the thread: The first day of the House
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‘We sit together with no barriers’
Meanwhile, things were smooth as butter for the new 17-member Senate majority on its first day… well save for the unexplained absence of Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Shower. Senate President Gary Stevens was elected without objection, clearing the way for the 20-member chamber to get to business.
In his opening remarks to the chamber, Stevens highlighted the importance of bipartisanship and working together to find solutions to shared problems.
“Alaskans expect us to find solutions that work, that respect the right of all Alaskans, and that moves our great state forward. When you visit our federal capital in Washington, D.C., you see the aisle that divides Republicans from Democrats. You see the same thing in many state legislatures, but not here in Alaska,” Stevens said. “Our state Senate has no such division and virtually every senator in this room, when you look to your left and your right, you will find a member of the other party. We sit together with no barriers.”
Senate business was light on Tuesday. They approved the committee assignments and created a special committee on world trade. The reading across of new legislation was saved for today. Instead, the senators took a moment to recognize their family and friends who had helped them get to this moment.
Follow the thread: The Senate’s first day in session
The Senate Majority has, at least for now, committed to regular, public briefings with reporters. These have gone away in recent years—in large part because the slim, divided majorities make it hard to put any sort of united message forward—in favor of smaller briefings away from the cameras.
Anyway, it was good to see senators field questions. A few takeaways:
The Senate really does seem interested in taking a crack at the state’s public employee retirement system in a meaningful way. Senate Finance Committee co-chair Bert Stedman said that it’ll start with a financial review of the current retirement program to see where it’s at. When asked about the cost of returning to some sort of defined benefit pension system that would do better at retaining employees for the long-term, Stevens said a health care benefits could be one of the big cost areas to look at.
Optimistic confusion would be my description of senators’ take on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s carbon sequestration proposal. They liked the part where it could make upwards of a billion dollars a year, but weren’t really all that clear on how any of it would actually work in detail. Sen. Cathy Giessel, who co-chairs the Senate Resources Committee, expressed interest in diving into the plan’s details, all the way down to what types of trees might be the most beneficial.
On the House disorganization, Stevens said “It doesn’t have much impact on us. We wish them well.” He added, though, that while the Senate will be able to get out ahead, they don’t plan on trying to drive the House this year. “I would say all we can do is hope for the best.”
The strings-attached is going to be an important part of the strings-attached education funding increase. While it seems like there’s real interest in pushing things ahead with funding not just for K-12 but the University of Alaska and other job training, there’s a fair bit of concern about the state of Alaska’s education system. Sen. Stedman pointed out that he’s particularly concerned that post-pandemic, it’s looking like the gap is widening between Alaska and most other states. He says he wants to get an answer on that front.
$300 million is the deficit in the budget at this moment, Sen. Bert Stedman said. He warned, though, that it’s a preliminary number that will likely grow as they start to dig into the budget and understand it better. A lot of senators expressed optimism in the face of the potential deficit, noting a lot can change quickly and also that there’s a ton of federal dollars coming to the state. Still, Stedman’s assessment of it was “There’s no excess revenue this year, let’s put it that way.”
On the Legislature’s relationship with the governor, Stevens said things have changed considerably from the scorched-earth budget of the governor’s first year. “The governor is going to be much easier to work with,” he said.
Does anyone know where Sen. Shower is? Nope, but they’ll be happy to swear him in once he shows up.
Follow the thread: The Senate Majority’s news conference
Here’s what’s on the agenda for Jan. 18, 2023, in the Alaska Legislature:
9 a.m. — Senate Finance Committee gets an updated look at the revenue forecast
10 a.m. — House floor, where we might have a speaker vote but likely another punt
11 a.m. — Senate floor, where they get underway with official business like moving all the pre-filed bills into the record and assigning them to committees
4 p.m. — Senate Resources with “committee discussion of resource topics”
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