New legislative leaders prepare to start work ahead of challenging session

Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, has been tapped as Speaker of the House following the formation of a new bipartisan majority caucus. (Photo by 360 NORTH)
Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, has been tapped as Speaker of the House following the formation of a new bipartisan majority caucus. (Photo by 360 NORTH)

Both houses of the legislature will have new leaders in January.

Listen Now

Incoming Senate President Pete Kelly and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon both said they have positive feelings toward the other. But they lead very different caucuses that will likely have different priorities in the coming legislative session.

Edgmon is becoming the speaker of the House because of a new, mostly Democratic, coalition that also includes Republicans and independents.

The Dillingham Democrat said he expects a difficult year ahead.

“We’re essentially down to one year’s worth of savings and a lot of the easy choices are not there anymore,” Edgmon said. “And I think it’s going to be incumbent upon the legislature to take decisive action on not only the current fiscal challenges but also the longer-term picture.”

Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, at a Senate Majority press availability, Feb. 22, 2016. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)
Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, at a Senate Majority press availability, Feb. 22, 2016. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Pete Kelly is becoming president of a Senate whose Republican-led majority is pretty similar to last session.

The Fairbanks Republican also wants to make progress in closing the state’s more than $3 billion budget gap. But he said there’s actually a danger in entirely closing the gap. He said that will feed the demand for government to grow.

“People look at a deficit like that and say we have to do everything we can to fill that deficit right now,” Kelly said. “The problem with that is if you fill it, particularly with taxes, the next year government will have a tendency to grow and then you’re going to want more taxes and you’re going to be back in the same position over a period of time.”

Bryce Edgmon and Pete Kelly first met in the 1990s, when Kelly served in the House and Edgmon was a legislative aide.

The relationship between the two could be important in smoothing over the differences between the chambers.

The House majority is united around building a comprehensive plan to solve the state’s fiscal crisis that will likely support a broad-based tax like an income or sales tax, along with spending cuts and use of Permanent Fund earnings for the budget.

The Senate declined to consider a broad-based tax last year, but it did advance a bill to spend from Permanent Fund earnings that was rejected by the House.

Edgmon is hopeful about working with Kelly.

“I’m confident that I’ll have a good relationship with the incoming president.,” Edgmon said. “And in terms of working together – the House and Senate – I think he’s going to strive to do his best job – and certainly will I.”

Kelly said he has a positive view of Edgmon.

“I like Bryce — and I don’t know what (are) going to be their main objectives,” Kelly said. “So, we’ll wait to see what the issues are that may divide us, but the starting point is pretty good. Bryce is a pretty good guy in my book, and I enjoy dealing with him.”

Both Edgmon and Kelly move to their leadership roles from position on their chambers’ finance committees. Both said they’ll miss the committee posts. They have another thing in common in that they both are sounding a note of caution.

Neither wants to say something now that their caucus will later disagree with.

Edgmon declined to comment when he was asked about Kelly’s reluctance to entirely close the deficit.

“I don’t want to get ahead of the caucus in providing any commentary that hasn’t been the subject of caucus deliberations,” Edgmon said.

And Kelly said it’s too soon to say what major legislation will advance in the Senate.

“There’s this period of time between now and when we actually get seated, that we try to formulate a path forward and that hasn’t been done yet,” Kelly said.

There is one area Kelly and Edgmon see differences. Kelly already said there may be “a bit of a battle” between Governor Bill Walker and the Senate over further increasing oil and gas taxes. Edgmon said it’s possible that the House will work with Walker and – he hopes – the Senate on oil and gas taxes.