Republican and Democratic state senators organize in coalition
November 30, 2022
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,” 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 brought to the floor for a vote, Stevens announced.
The powerful budget-writing Finance Committee will have three co-chairs: 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 Giessel, who served as Senate president in 2019 and 2020 but lost her seat in the Republican primary 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 excessive 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 this year’s budget. They have called for larger Permanent Fund dividends.
In a statement, the three outsider senators criticized their Republican colleagues.
Hughes said the vast majority of voters supported a “right-of-center” majority.
Giessel said she has been in the same position as the three senators. 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.
“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.
The state House, which also has a history of cross-party majority coalitions, had not yet organized into a leadership group as of Monday. Though the outcome had not yet been certified by state elections officials, as of Monday 21 of the House’s 40 seats were going to Republicans.
Whatever the configuration of their leadership, House and Senate 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 revenue available for state spending in the fiscal year that ends next June 30 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 next July will be $580.6 million less than last spring’s estimate.
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, 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.”
Reporter Yereth Rosen contributed reporting from Anchorage. The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com.