Alaska Senate goes bipartisan with 17-member majority

Sens.-elect Matt Claman and Cathy Giessel join Kodiak Sen. Gary Stevens at the announcement of the new 17-member Senate Majority coalition on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022 at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office. (Photo by Matt Buxton/TMS)

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ANCHORAGE—The Senate Majority had its coming out party on Friday night, proving not only to be the long-rumored bipartisan organization but also a supermajority comprised of 17 of the chamber’s 20 senators.

With all nine Democrats and eight of 11 Republicans, it’s easier to talk about who isn’tpart of the supermajority. That’d be extreme-right Republican Sens. Mike Shower, Robb Myers and Shelley Hughes, who penned a last-minute letter this week pleading with Republicans to stick together.

Everyone else—whether it’s Republican Sens.-elect Cathy Giessel and Jesse Bjorkman or Democratic Sens.-elect Löki Gale Tobin, Forrest Dunbar and Matt Claman—will be part of a majority built on a belief that bipartisan cooperation is necessary after years of disruptions by the extreme right.  

“I think this is a recognition of the reality of the last four years,” said Kodiak Sen. Gary Stevens, who will be returning to the position as Senate President after leading the Senate’s last bipartisan coalition before it was dismantled following the 2012 election. “We have not been able to get several of our (Republican) senators to support the budget and we’ve had to go around them and bring the Democrats in to pass a budget. That’s been true for the last four years. …  This is simply a recognition of how the Legislature works.”

Nine of the 17 members of the new Senate majority coalition attend the announcement at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office on Nov. 25, 2022. (Photo by Matt Buxton/TMS)

Stevens said the intention is to avoid deeply contentious issues and focus on ones that can win bipartisan buy-in from the coalition. They were light on details during the Friday-night announcement at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office, but senators touched on issues like education funding, infrastructure investment and the health of the Alaska Permanent Fund.

Like pretty much every legislative majority except for the last Republican Senate majority, members of the bipartisan coalition will be expected to vote for the budget on final passage. Far-right legislators have long chafed at binding caucuses, arguing that they should be able to vote against the budget while also enjoying the benefits that come along with being part of a majority—perks like committee chairmanships, better offices and more staff members.

Now, those three Republicans—who’ve all cast votes against the budget—will find themselves in a minority so small that they won’t be guaranteed any seats on any committees. Legislative rules only recognize minority caucuses with at least five members.

When the Senate majority hits 16, it means the minority is just 4 (and therefore not due any seats). The chart only goes down to 5.

Still, Stevens said he plans to offer them seats on standing committees if they’re interested. Those kinds of decisions—in addition to the rest of the layout of committee memberships—will be made closer to the start of the session. 

I’ll break down the major changes and takeaways from the hearing in some follow-up posts this next week, but one of the biggest changes to point out today is the trio of senators at the helm of the Senate Finance Committee. Typically a two-person job, it’s been spread out to Sens. Bert Stedman, Lyman Hoffman and Donny Olson. Stedman will oversee the operating budget, Hoffman the capital budget and Olson will be responsible for running legislation through the committee. 

Why it matters: It’s probably a good change given the work that the Finance committees have—which usually becomes a traffic jam at the end of the session.

The details

The members: Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks; Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski; Matt Claman, D-Anchorage; Forrest Dunbar, D-Anchorage; Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage; Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage; Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel; James Kaufman, R-Anchorage; Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks; Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau; Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River; Donny Olson, D-Golovin; Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak; Bert Stedman, R-Sitka; Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage; Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage; David Wilson, R-Wasilla

The leadership:

  • Senate President Gary Stevens
  • Rules Chair Bill Wielechowski
  • Majority Leader Cathy Giessel
  • Senate Finance co-chairs Bert Stedman, Lyman Hoffman, Donny Olson
  • Majority Whip Click Bishop

Standing committee chairs

  • Judiciary: Chair Matt Claman, Vice-chair James Kaufman
  • Resources: Co-Chairs Click Bishop and Cathy Giessel
  • Health and Social Services: David Wilson
  • State Affairs: Scott Kawasaki
  • Community and Regional Affairs: Forrest Dunbar
  • Labor and Commerce: Jesse Bjorkman
  • Transportation: Bill Wielechowski 
  • Education: Löki Tobin

Other chairs

  • World Trade: Lyman Hoffman
  • Senate Joint Armed Services chair: Scott Kawasaki 
  • Legislative Budget and Audit: Bert Stedman (House gets chair this cycle)
  • Legislative Council: Elvi Gray-Jackson (Senate gets the chair this cycle) 

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1 Comment on "Alaska Senate goes bipartisan with 17-member majority"

  1. Sad for the Mat-Su that two of its three senators chose to be inconsequential backbenchers. But considering how out of touch they are with mainstream Alaskans, it will be good for the process — and good for the state as a whole — that these two cannot obstruct again.

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