With the ongoing stalemate between Republicans, Democrats and bipartisanship in the House there’s a very real possibility that a majority caucus commanding 21 votes won’t be in place when legislators begin session next Tuesday.
That creates a problem because 21 is the magic number to elect a permanent speaker, which has raised the question: Just what can the House do without a speaker in place?
It turns out not a heckuva lot, but we’ll talk about that more below.
What’s starting to percolate around legislative circles is another procedural problem: Can House District 13 appointee Sharon Jackson take part in the election of the speaker of the house?
According to the Alaska Legislature’s uniform rules, the first day of session is supposed to go like this: Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer “calls the roll of members whose election has been certified,” he swears those members in, he oversees the selection of the temporary speaker by a majority of the full house (21 votes) who takes the gavel to oversee the nomination and election of a permanent speaker (which also takes 21 votes).
The snag here is “members whose election has been certified,” at least that’s the thinking we’ve heard.
Sharon Jackson has been appointed to fill the vacancy of Nancy Dahlstrom, who was elected in 2018, but already left the position to take a job with the Dunleavy administration. Because she’s an appointee, Jackson has no election to be certified.
It creates a Catch 22 for the House Republicans, who despite laying claim to the mantle of “majority” only currently have 20 members (including Jackson) pledged to their ranks. They’ll need all those votes plus one to secure their majority with a speaker, but they’ll need a speaker to officially seat one of those votes.
So what happens if no one in the House can rally 21 votes?
“If that’s a 20-20 split vote on the pro tem speaker then I stay up there,” explained Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer in an interview on the Jan. 6 edition of the Landmine Radio podcast.
In the case of a deadlock where the House can’t agree on either a temporary speaker (pro tem) or a speaker, the lieutenant governor would remain the body’s presiding officer. But unlike the U.S. Senate, he doesn’t have any authority to cast a tiebreaking vote or, really, much else.
“You really can’t do any business because I’m not a voting member so we can do the Pledge of Allegiance, we can do the prayer, introduction of guests and of course take nominations for a speaker pro tem or just skip that part and go right for a speaker,” Meyer. “I can’t really run it.”
The House currently remains in a stalemate with the Republican organization commanding 20 members (including Jackson and fringe Rep. David Eastman); the remnants of the mostly Democratic bipartisan House Majority Coalition has 19 (including a smaller faction of moderate representatives that have pledged to stick together); and Republican Rep. Gary Knopp has struck it out alone in hopes of forming a truly bipartisan coalition with more than a perilous 21 seats.
Since Friday’s Alaska Supreme Court ruling that handed Republican Bart LeBon a one-vote victory over Democrat Kathryn Dodge in Fairbanks, Knopp has remained firm in his commitment to a bipartisan coalition.
“This coalition is going to happen,” Knopp told KDLL in an interview posted Tuesday. “You put it together and you’ve got to keep it together.”