Alaska Senate majority strips three Mat-Su Republicans of their leadership positions

Sens. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, talk before a floor session on Tuesday, January 21, 2020 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The Alaska Senate, in its first meeting of this year’s legislative session, voted Tuesday to strip three Mat-Su Republicans of their committee chairmanships.

Senate leaders spent the first six hours of the day in closed-door meetings. At its core, the majority caucus fractured over the Permanent Fund dividend amount — though none of the members who were stripped of their positions Tuesday have formally left the caucus.

“We stood for the Permanent Fund dividend, and right now I don’t think it looks all that good for it,” said Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Shower.

Shower, Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes and Eagle River Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold broke from their caucus on a vote last year setting the dividend amount. Each wants a dividend funded under the traditional formula set in state law, rather than the smaller version supported by many of their GOP colleagues in the majority..

Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said there are rules for the 14-member majority caucus, and legislators agree to them when they join.

Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, and Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, talk before a floor session on Tuesday, January 21, 2020 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

“It’s just like sitting in an exit row on a jet. You choose to sit on that exit row. There are rules you have to follow and the flight attendant will ask you, ‘Will you comply by the rules?’ And you have to verbally answer ‘yes.’ If you say ‘no,’ that’s fine. You just get a different seat on the plane,” Giessel said.

The committee leadership positions lost by the renegade trio gave them control over the flow of legislation, and Reinbold said there has been a dramatic shift in power in the Senate — away from the Mat-Su conservatives.

“I believe this is a defining moment in the history of Alaska, where there’s a major shift to the left,” she said.

This isn’t the first time Reinbold has been punished for voting against her caucus. In 2015, when she was a member of the House majority, she was stripped of most of her committee assignments after voting against the operating budget.

In 2017, Hughes also voted against the Senate majority’s budget. She and then-Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Wasilla Republican, left the caucus in order to do so.

Senators head into negotiations on Tuesday, January 21, 2020 in Juneau, Alaska. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, (left) was stripped of most of his committee positions by Senate leadership for violating the rules of the caucus. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Dunleavy, who was elected governor in 2018, said in an interview Tuesday morning that it can be difficult for legislators to balance the caucus’s needs against their own.

“They owe their loyalty to their constituents,” he said. “The caucus contract was developed to help run business. When the caucus concept runs well, it runs well. It works for everybody. Sometimes it doesn’t. But that’s a decision that the current Legislature’s going to have to decide, if they’re having questions about their caucus system.”

Giessel said after the vote that she’s not expecting any more changes.

Andrew Kitchenman contributed to this report.