Kodiak Republican Rep. Louise Stutes publicly confirmed Monday night that she’ll stick with the House coalition of independents and Democrats, cementing a 20-20 split in the House.
The news was largely expected given Stutes’ close alliance with other rural legislators—specifically House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham—and her membership in the coalition going back to 2017. In a statement released to the Anchorage Daily News after informing Republicans of her decision, Stutes says she’s primarily concerned with protecting her district from further cuts.
“If you know me, you know that during my time in Juneau I’ve never lost sight of where I come from. Although a proud Republican for 50 years, I am first and foremost a representative of my district,” she said in her letter. “It is no secret that services rural Alaskans depend on have been disproportionately targeted for cuts. As a result, I have prioritized working with legislators who support those services and my district, regardless of party affiliation. It is critical now, more than ever, that we stand our ground to protect and restore our coastal communities.”
The move is similar to one made by Rep.-elect Josiah Aullaqsruaq Patkotak, a conservative-leaning independent who announced he would caucus with fellow rural legislators in order to protect the interests of rural Alaska.
“I think the best place with me right now is sticking with the Bush Caucus of legislators that have that common goal,” told the Anchorage Daily News at the time.
Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed steep cuts to services for rural Alaska in his initial budget only to see many of those cuts resisted by the current House coalition as well as an unexpectedly moderate Republican Senate. With a concerted effort to make the Legislature more obedient to Dunleavy through primary challenges this year, there’s been fear among rural Alaskans about what an all-Republican Legislature would mean for rural Alaska.
Many of those legislators have eyed several rural-specific programs as easy (to them) cuts to delay tougher decisions on new revenue or cementing reductions to the PFD.
Rural legislators have been vocal about their concerns, highlighting them on the stage of this year’s Alaska Federation of Natives’ convention. Both Edgmon and Bush Caucus chair Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, warned about further cuts during their speeches.
“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,” she said.
For Stutes, the state of the Alaska Marine Highway System has been critically important as it provides critical service to the coastal communities in her district.
Kodiak, Cordova, Yakutat, Seldovia and all District 32 communities in between are reliant on a healthy Alaska Marine Highway, robust fisheries management, quality K-12 schools, public safety, community revenue sharing and investment in infrastructure,” she said in her letter. “After giving it careful thought, I am making it public that I will be caucusing with my colleagues in the current House Majority Coalition who share my vision for a vibrant rural, as well as urban Alaska. By working together, I am confident we can build a bright future for all Alaskans.”
Why it matters
If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that I’ve already been making the assumption that Stutes would say on for a third session with the bipartisan coalition. This cements that, effectively closing the door on the possibility that Stutes or fellow rural Legislators could be picked off by an increasingly conservative group of Republicans.
What’s ahead now is not entirely clear. The House started the current legislative session without organization, taking Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s 2019 budget to shock moderate Republicans into crossing over to join the House coalition.
Thanks to several primary challenges there are now fewer moderate Republicans, and thanks to the general election there are now fewer House Republicans overall.
Attention will likely focus in on Fairbanks Republican Reps. Bart LeBon and Steve Thompson. The two are the lone remaining House Republicans aside from Stutes who caucused with the current coalition and still have a seat in the Legislature.
In mid-November, LeBon told KTUU that he was undecided on a caucus and predicted that a majority caucus would likely require a mix of legislators from both parties and independents and warned that a slim 21-member majority could spell trouble for the majority.
“What I’ve learned, in my brief two years in the Legislature, is that you need a healthy number in your majority caucus,” LeBon said. “Twenty-one would not define a healthy number.”