The upcoming Alaska primary will determine if state Senate President Cathy Giessel will return to the Legislature. She’s facing a challenge from Roger Holland in the Republican primary for her Anchorage seat. He criticizes her leadership of the Senate. But she says her approach reflects the importance of compromise to governing the state.
Giessel’s two years as Senate president have been eventful. It started with the Legislature responding to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposal to close most of the state’s then $1.5 billion deficit. Despite some spending cuts, the deficit has grown.
Giessel said experience will be important for addressing the budget.
“The state of Alaska is facing perhaps the most challenging time financially that we’ve faced since statehood,” she said. “It’s a time when experience and knowledge is critical to finding a productive path forward.”
Giessel is a lifelong Alaskan who has been in the Senate for 10 years. She’s an advanced nurse practitioner who’s played a major role in shaping energy policy as the longtime chair of the Senate Resources Committee.
She said more budget cuts will be needed to close the more than $2 billion gap. But she said the cuts Dunleavy proposed last year weren’t appropriate. She attributed the approach to former state budget director Donna Arduin.
“The budget cuts that were proposed by Donna Arduin demonstrated her complete lack of understanding of the critical needs and extremely diverse needs of our state,” she said.
Some of the most intense criticism Giessel’s received has been for her enforcement of a long-standing practice known as the binding caucus. A binding caucus requires its members to vote with leadership on procedural votes, as well as for the budget.
Giessel said anyone is free to leave the caucus. She said Alaskans benefit from lawmakers being able to compromise.
“The wakeup call I believe happens when people arrive in Juneau and discover there are 59 other people, all of whom have different interests than theirs,” she said.
Giessel’s opponent is Roger Holland. He works as a metrologist — a job measuring whether products like those carried in commercial vehicles are properly weighed. He’s lived in Alaska for 11 years after spending most of his life in Louisiana. He said he’s followed national politics for decades but more recently became concerned with the state.
Holland said that Giessel had lost touch with “what her job should be as a Republican senator in a Republican state with Republican majorities in the House and Senate and a Republican governor.”
Holland says he wants larger spending cuts, paraphrasing U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan’s phrase, “less government, more economic freedom.” As for Dunleavy’s budget proposal last year, Holland said he would need to look at it more closely. He said he wasn’t familiar with the details of its two largest pieces — transferring more than $400 million in oil property taxes from municipalities to the state government and cutting state aid to public schools by a quarter.
Holland supports drawing more from the Permanent Fund’s earnings reserve account than is currently outlined under state law, for the next year or two. He said Alaskans are right to be concerned about the future health of the fund. He compared it to the Constitutional Budget Reserve, which was depleted to balance the state’s budget over the last five years.
“But if there was ever a time when Alaska was facing a crisis, I would say it’s today,” he said. “It wasn’t five years ago when we spent down the CBR, but it would be today.”
Holland also said he would oppose having a binding caucus, even if ending the approach led to policy results he disagrees with.
“We have 13 Republican and seven Democrats and the majority leader is a Democrat and the minority leader is a Democrat and a third of the senators are stripped of their chairmanships and staffing and any real power,” he said.
The majority leader is Bethel Democratic Senator Lyman Hoffman, who has caucused with Republicans for much of his tenure.
Early in-person voting for the primary has started, and more than 18,000 Alaskans statewide have already voted either in-person or by mailing in absentee ballots. The primary election day is Aug. 18.