More than a third of the way into the 90-day legislative session, the Alaska House of Representatives is finally ready to get to work.
Despite the last-minute defection of one of its members, the 20-member House Coalition was able wrangle enough votes today to approve committee assignments and can begin holding hearings and moving legislation next week.
“We’re ready to get to work and move forward with the people’s business,” said House Speaker Louise Stutes in a prepared statement. “Now that the House is organized, we’ll hit the ground running and start advancing policies that protect the health and welfare of Alaskans, confront our budget challenges, and improve public safety.”
Stutes was elected as House Speaker last week in a surprise move after moderate Eagle River Republican Rep. Kelly Merrick broke with party-line Republicans to join the House Coalition, making it a group with 15 Democrats, four independents and two Republicans. Anchorage Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen, who has a close friendship with Merrick, eventually left the minority Republican caucus but did not join the House Coalition. She was eventually joined as an independent legislator when Anchorage Democratic Rep. Geran Tarr left the House coalition Thursday night over a dispute about a committee assignment.
All three joined the rest of the House Coalition in passing the report establishing the committee assignments today. The vote had been postponed twice and today’s vote was critical because the schedule for the upcoming week must be set by the end of Thursday.
The House also approved the creation of several special committees that have been in place in prior Legislatures, including a Special Committee on Tribal Affairs that was created under former House Speaker Bryce Edgmon. In addition to the existing special committees, the chamber also voted to create a Ways and Means Committee that’s dedicated to limiting government spending, finding efficiencies in government operations and generating new revenue.
Minority Republicans and Rasmussen opposed the measure, arguing that it was best handled by the House Finance Committee. Coalition members and Tarr supported it, arguing that the House Finance Committee is overloaded with the abbreviated session and this new committee will be play a critical role in helping chart the chamber’s response to the state’s ongoing financial crisis.
“The truth is we’re starting over a month late and the finance committee has an obligation not only to pass a budget but to hear every bill that has a finance referral on it,” said Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, the Anchorage Democrat who was later assigned to chair the committee, during the debate on the measure. “We need to make sure that they’re able to do that work. This committee will be a way station on the way there.”
With the House Coalition’s Republicans and independents focused on the powerful House Finance Committee, Democrats are in charge of nearly every other standing committee in the House. It’ll mark a stark difference from the Republican-controlled Senate where extreme-right Republicans have been given a platform to spread disinformation on everything from elections and the judiciary to covid.
You can find the full committee assignments on the Legislature’s website but if you feel like squinting, here’s a full chart of assignments: