Kito finally loses Legislative Council chair for walking out of caucus after smoking bill clash

Rep. Sam Kito and his beard. (Photo by House Majority Coalition)

Update: The original version of this story has been rewritten with additional context.

The ax has finally fallen on Juneau Democratic Rep. Sam Kito for walking away from the House Majority Coalition after a dispute over significant changes that made to the smoke-free workplaces legislation.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, officially removed Kito from his chairmanship at the head of the powerful Legislative Council on Monday, replacing him with Fairbanks Rep. David Guttenberg, according to the Associated Press.

Kito walked out of an April 10 House Rules Committee meeting where chair Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, introduced significant changes to Senate Bill 63. LeDoux, a skeptic of the state’s role in regulating smoking, introduced the changes as a compromise in the face of many legislators, including those in the House Majority Caucus during a news conference, pushing for the bill (though the bill didn’t actually reach a vote until the final day of session).

The primary change was to introduce a provision that allows municipalities and established villages opt out of the statewide ban on smoking in workplaces, a change that got derision from the American Lung Association.

It all was too much for Kito. After the meeting, he told the Juneau Empire that he would not longer be participating in the caucus meetings.

“It’s fair to say I will not be participating in caucus meetings from this time forward,” Kito told the Empire afterward.

The dispute over the smoking bill appears to be the culmination feud between the Juneau legislator and LeDoux, which some political insiders suggest had more to do with other disputes than it did with the smoking bill.

Both have broken with the majority caucus both before and after that meeting, particularly when it came to the budget and whether or not to fully fund a PFD, but almost always on opposite sides of any given issue. LeDoux was one of the prime forces behind the short-lived push for a full PFD while Kito had been steadfastly opposed to the maneuver.

Kito rekindled the dispute on Monday, when he took to Twitter to say that the treatment he received was unfair, especially given LeDoux’s multiple votes against the House Majority Coalition, which unlike most majorities doesn’t require its members to vote in favor of the budget or any other issue.

“So I was removed from leg council for speaking truth to power, and all this is my reward for being the 21st vote on the operating budget on two occasions while the rules chair consistently voted against the majority,” he wrote, later adding the conspiratorial: “Was any of this orchestrated by the senate? Have to suspect so. I cannot apologize, because I can only do what is right, and stand for whet I believe in, and unlike others in the legislature. I believe in the future of our state.”

Kito is still listed as the chair of the House Labor and Commerce Committee, a position he held throughout the session. The committee became a graveyard for bills sponsored by his fellow members of the House Majority Caucus.

Kito announced he would not seek re-election midway through this session, saying that the elimination of per diem for legislators living close to session made it impossible to afford doing the job while also paying for a child to go to college. Guttenberg, who will chair the Legislative Council for the remainder of the term, announced last week that he will not seek re-election.

One of Kito’s final actions as chair of the Legislative Council was to propose cutting legislative per diem by 75 percent across the board. It was a move that was largely meant to make a point about the disparity in the existing per diem rules. He said the cuts to Juneau legislators’ per diem would mean that only the wealthy or the corrupt could afford to serve.

“I worry what we have established now becomes the new normal and there will not be motivation from 57 other legislators to address an issue of inequity for Juneau,” he said. “I do fear, and not for myself, I fear that Juneau will end up short.”

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