House teeters toward organization as Merrick joins majority coalition

House Speaker hears from Republicans and House Coalition members during the floor session on Feb. 15, 2021.

The Alaska House is finally, nearly organized and finally, nearly ready to do business just 29 days into this year’s legislative session.

Rep. Kelly Merrick, the Eagle River Republican who cast the tie-breaking vote to elect permanent House Speaker Louise Stutes last week, confirmed on Monday that she has joined the House Coalition, giving the group the 21 votes needed to begin organizing the House.

Merrick, a pro-labor moderate, told KTOO’s Andrew Kitchenman on Monday that she is still hopeful additional Republicans would cross over and fill some of the House’s key leadership positions.

“I am working closely with Republican Speaker Louise Stutes to form a functional, diverse caucus with many Republicans in key leadership positions,” she told the outlet.

The House on Monday appointed seven members to the Committee on Committees, which makes decisions on committee appointments. The members were House Speaker Stutes, Merrick as well as coalition Reps. Bryce Edgmon, Neal Foster and Chris Tuck. Republican Reps. Sara Rasmussen and Mike Cronk were appointed but were removed from the committee today at the request of Republicans and replaced with Reps. Cathy Tilton and Laddie Shaw.

Tilton was later named to represent Republicans as minority leader.

As the House Coalition has laid claim to the House, the question moving ahead is whether additional members will follow Merrick to land plum leadership positions in the the House. Merrick has been penciled in co-chair of the House Finance Committee, a powerful position in setting the budget and controlling the flow of legislation.

The layout will be essentially locked in once the Committee on Committees meets and forwards its report to the House floor. Stutes said today that the she planned to wrap up the decision by the end of today but others have suggested it may take longer if there are Republicans on the fence.

Whoever jumps first will have the best leverage in dictating the organization, but for Republicans it’ll carry political risk with a party machine intent on purity and for House Coalition members it’ll carry the policy risk of empowering far-right Republicans and their agenda akin to what we’ve seen happen in the Alaska Senate.

A 21-member majority will be an uncomfortable position for the House Coalition as it will require all members to be on board for key decisions, such as the budget. Typically these problems are handled through a binding caucus agreement that requires members to vote for the budget. While far-right Republicans (who’ve never been in the majority) have been generally opposed to such an agreement, the House Coalition’s members have generally been more amenable to a binding agreement.

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