With the election results settled pending recounts, the question now becomes just how a divided House might organize.
On one side of the ledger are the 20 party-line Republicans who after a year of infighting have ousted many moderate incumbents, leaving a more-conservative and less-experienced core. On the other side are 19 members who’re aligned with the current coalition—a mixture of urban and rural Democrats, independents and Kodiak Republican Rep. Louise Stutes, a consistent ally of Bush legislators.
In the middle—or as near to a middle as there is—is Utqiagvik Rep.-elect Josiah Aullaqsruaq Patkotak, who won his election as an independent candidate after dropping out of a crowded Democratic primary. With the financial backing of oil companies and a handful of Republican operatives, he’s seen as the Republicans’ best (and perhaps only) shot at getting the 21st vote needed to elect a speaker.
They’re likely to be disappointed.
Patkotak spoke Wednesday with KOTZ Radio’s Wesley Early about his plans to organize in the House, throwing cold water on the hopes that he might quickly hand them the 21st vote or that he would be an ally at all.
“I have this deep belief that a lot of things that I’ve learned going whaling can be applied throughout my life,” Patkotak told KOTZ Radio. “That’s one of the things; you know when to strike the whale and you know when not to. And I think I’m just applying that same principle here. Like I said, I haven’t committed to anybody. All options are on the table.”
He told the station that his guiding principles are to defend both local communities’ ability to collect petroleum property taxes—a particularly critical source of revenue for the North Slope Borough, where he serves as an assemblyman—and the power cost equalization program—a long-running state endowment fund that spins off money to help those living in rural Alaska pay their utility bills.
That’s likely a deal-breaker when it comes to organizing with the increasingly conservative Republicans.
That’s because both are sources of money that Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his legislative allies eyed in 2019 under the direction of now-former budget director Donna Arduin. They’ve frequently eyed rural-focused services as an easy (for them) source of cuts.
In proposing to divert property tax revenue collected by local governments to state coffers in 2019, the North Slope Borough would have lost as much as $372 million.
While both ideas gained little traction in the current legislative session, where they were staunchly opposed by the House coalition and some senators, they were given new life this year when Arduin returned to Alaska for pre-election budget trainings with prospective legislators. In a scenario where Republicans control both chambers and the governor’s office, they would stand to be key pieces of Republicans’ financial plans for this year as dwindling savings make it increasingly difficult to balance the budget and pay PFDs without implementing new revenue.
Arduin described pilfering the accounts as a “glide path for the state,” a line that has gained traction with several Republican legislators and incoming Republican legislators.
If Republicans were to give into Patkotak’s requests to defend both property taxes and the power cost equalization program (a difficult-to-keep promise given Republicans’ refusal to abide by a binding agreement), it would greatly limit their options when it comes to the budget and push them into less-than-palatable discussions of further service cuts or new revenues.
Previously, it’s not been unusual for Bush legislators to caucus with Republicans in return for key positions in the majority but that was in the days of a generally more moderate an pragmatic Republican majority.
Bush Caucus members House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, and Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, both warned what a cuts-focused legislature may mean for rural Alaska during speeches at this year’s Alaska Federation of Natives convention.
“This pandemic has also highlighted the systemic inequities between urban and rural parts of the state. Whether regarding accessibility to state programs or equitable funding through the state budget, not all communities in Alaska start at the same starting line,” Zulkosky, the chair of the Bush Caucus, said. “As Alaska faces significant uncertainty to declining revenues and lack of political will to address it, we have seen unprecedented attacks to drain the Power Cost Equalization endowment fund, spend down our savings, cut rural public safety, community assistance, education and limit access to health care for short-term gains that put rural Alaska communities on the edge.”
Patkotak told KOTZ Radio that he plans on taking his title as an independent legislator seriously and will put his district first.
“Anybody that’s going to look at attacking programs or services that are going to affect my district negatively, that’s not something I’m going to be in favor of, obviously,” he said.