Shut Out From Finance, Stedman Accepts Health Chair

Bert Stedman

State Sen. Bert Stedman will chair the Senate Health and Social Services committee when the Legislature convenes in January.

The Sitka Republican, who sailed to an easy re-election on Tuesday night, had been co-chairman of the powerful Senate Finance committee since 2007. But he lost that position when the new Senate Majority formed on Wednesday.

In Stedman’s hometown of Sitka, officials say losing him as Finance co-chair is bad news for the city and region. But they’re also not quite sure what the exact impact will be.

Stedman’s assignment to chair the Health and Social Services Committee was announced Thursday evening, after we talked to officials at city hall in Sitka. The news takes away some uncertainty about what he will be doing next session, but concern remains about what he won’t be doing: serving as co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

“Have we lost some strength? Absolutely,” said Jim Dinley, Sitka’s municipal administrator.

He says Stedman brought a lot of grants and financial support to the Sitka when he led the Finance committee.

“Bert was very good to us,” Dinley said. “He made it easy for us to get appointments with other departments, and other senators and representatives. We’re basically back to square one.”

The new Finance co-chairs are Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage and Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks. Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, is now chairman of the Education committee, and the new Senate President is Wasilla Republican Charlie Huggins.

Sitka, like many other Alaska communities, looks to the state for help funding its big infrastructure projects.

That will be especially true in 2013. The city has already asked the state for $43 million to help fund its expansion of the Blue Lake dam, one of two hydro projects generating electricity for Sitka. Construction costs on the dam are higher than originally predicted, and that’s meant a scramble to find more money.

“I think Bert will still be very effective for Sitka,” Dinley said. “He’s a good choice for the election. Will we be as successful? One can only hope that we will be.”

Stedman could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon or evening. In a statement issued by the Senate Majority, Stedman is quoted as saying “I look forward to this opportunity to broaden my horizons and work on issues that will benefit all Alaskans.”

Earlier in the day, Sitka Mayor Mim McConnell had said she expected Stedman would align with his GOP colleagues, despite some differences with what she presumed to be the majority’s agenda.

“Basically, if you’re not part of the majority then it’s really hard to get things done,” she said. “I kind of expect him to join the majority, but that’s also going to put pressure on him to vote for things like the big tax cuts for the oil companies, and I know he’s not in favor of that.”

McConnell will be among local officials descending on Juneau this winter to lobby lawmakers on behalf of their hometowns. And without Stedman leading the Finance committee, she says it might be a harder conversation for Sitka and other Southeast communities.

“There are so many critical issues we’re going to have to deal with that we’re going to have to fight a little harder for. And that’s going to take some time.”

She says “fighting harder” means establishing relationships, especially with newer legislators, and having lots of contact with established lawmakers, too.

McConnell says she’ll probably spend more time working the Capitol this year than she will attending the other meetings that come with a visit to Juneau. But she also is hopeful the new Senate majority caucus will be receptive to Sitka’s needs.

“One of their top three areas of focus is delivering affordable energy to Alaskans. Sitka fits right in with that,” McConnell said. “That’s exactly what this Blue Lake project is all about.”

And that will likely be what the city of Sitka argues in Juneau when members of the Alaska Legislature get to work in mid-January.