Rep.-elect Josiah Aullaqsruaq Patkotak, I-Utqiagvik, told the Anchorage Daily News on Thursday night that he plans to stick together with fellow Bush legislators, effectively cementing an even split in the 40-member House… for now.
Patkotak’s decision follows an interview with KOTZ Radio where he said he intends to caucus wherever he’s best able to defend critical programs and laws for his community and rural Alaska, a position that we said effectively rules out a GOP majority.
It’s not a full commitment to join with the bipartisan coalition but gives the bloc of legislators representing the rural areas of western and northern Alaska powerful sway as the House works toward a majority.
(Note: The Bush Caucus is a formal organization that includes more members than just those representing rural areas of western and northern Alaska and typically includes members from coastal communities and the Interior.)
Along with protecting critical programs like the Power Cost Equalization program and communities abilities to collect property taxes on oil and gas properties—which Republicans have eyed as an easy (to them) source of cash—the alliance also likely means the preservation of the House Special Committee on Tribal Affairs. The Tribal Affairs Committee was formed in 2019 and chaired by Zulkosky, creating a first-of-its-kind platform for issues related to tribal issues.
Patkotak told ADN that he prayed for several days before making his decision and remained firm in his conviction to defend rural Alaska against further cuts.
“I think the best place with me right now is sticking with the Bush Caucus of legislators that have that common goal,” he said.
Republicans had hoped to not just expand their majority in the House but elect a more obediently party-line group of legislators in support of Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s agenda, which has included efforts to drain the power cost equalization program and divert oil property taxes to the state’s coffers. According to unofficial election results, they’ve lost two incumbents while efforts in the primary to defeat quarrelsome far-right members failed.
With the losses of Reps. Mel Gillis and Lance Pruitt, hopes had fallen to Patkotak as a potential 21st member in the group (from which they would still likely need to add members). With financial backing from the oil industry and some Republican operatives, it had been hoped that he would lean conservative.
But while Bush legislators have traditionally allied with Republicans in return for key positions in the organization, the remaining bloc of Republicans is more conservative and more focused on the road system than past Republicans. Some have been outright racist against Alaska Natives while others have couched their opposition to rural programs with the position of “Why would they want to live out there in the first place?” Ultimately, the bloc of 20 party-line Republicans has generally favored a cuts-first approach to the state’s budget.
Edgmon warned against empowering such cuts-first legislators during his keynote address to the Alaska Federation of Natives’ annual convention earlier this year.
“Depending who’s in leadership positions in Juneau next session, you might see a Legislature that takes a one-dimensional approach to balancing the books. They’re going to make major, major cuts and then they’ll look back afterwards and decide if that’s the right move or not,” Edgmon said, “but I’m hoping that we’ll have a Legislature that will take a reasoned approach to this and look at this with a multi-dimensional standpoint because we have the opportunity, I think, to make some good choices, some measured choices that give us a glidepath to right-sizing government.”
As it stands, the House is evenly split.
Those 20 party-line Republicans face incredible pressure from their own party to stick with Republicans after a bruising primary year where several moderate Republicans who had filled most all key leadership roles in the bipartisan coalition were defeated in the primaries.
At the same time, given the remaining group of Republicans’ politics, it’ll be increasingly difficult for them to recruit the Bush Caucus or other legislators without significant concessions.
The organization will likely rest on Fairbanks Republican Reps. Bart LeBon and Steve Thompson. Both are members of the coalition—largely driven by their support for the University of Alaska—but had spent the campaign season mending relationships with fellow Republicans.
With nearly two months until the start of the legislative session and without a clear organization in the Senate—where things are similarly precarious despite Republicans holding 13 seats—it’s likely that we won’t any significant news on an organization as each side tries to pick off members through deal-making and a bit of nose-holding.