Alaska House organizes — without clear majority

A legislative chamber with plastic barriers in between
Alaska House Speaker Louise Stutes, on the dais in the center, presides over the Feb. 18 House floor session in the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. The House organized, including naming committee members of standing committees, during the session. (Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

The Alaska House of Representatives organized on Thursday, but without either caucus able to claim most of the members. Nevertheless, committee memberships were approved in a 22-17 vote, allowing the House to finally begin doing legislative business 31 days into the session.

But two of those who voted for the committees said they won’t caucus with the coalition that’s been the majority over the last two years. 

Anchorage Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen said she won’t caucus with either side. Rasmussen said it will be unusual to not have a caucus with a majority of members. 

“I think it’s kind of unprecedented, but it gives us an opportunity to have my voice — my district has a voice at the table,” she said. “And I’m hoping that … with compromise, we’ll be able to get some good policy moved forward.” 

She said she’ll stick to her conservative principles and what she campaigned on. She opposes any income tax or large increase to the taxes paid by oil companies. She said she would support changing the Permanent Fund dividend formula to make it more sustainable. 

A blond white woman walks through the hall
Rep. Sarah Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, walks onto the House floor before Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s State of the State address on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020 in Juneau. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

 Rasmussen will hold one of the majority seats on the influential House Finance Committee. 

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Geran Tarr also said she wouldn’t join a caucus. Tarr caucused with other House Democrats during her first eight years in office, but this year she wrote a letter to House Speaker Louise Stutes saying members had gained leaderships roles in the current organization by threatening to join Republicans. Joining Stutes’ group herself would therefore violate her “commitment to honorable public service,” she said.

Tarr was co-chair of the House Resources Committee for the last four years, but was not named to the position again in 2021. Utqiaġvik independent Rep. Josiah Aullaqsruaq Patkotak will be the chair. It’s the first time the committee won’t be led by co-chairs in 26 years.  

Stutes, a Kodiak Republican, said she’s confident she’ll have the 21 votes necessary for procedural matters that allow the House to function. She declined to say who the 21st vote would be. 

“I would rather talk people than numbers,” she said, adding: “We are open. We are working to create a good bridge between House members. And so I’m hoping as time goes by, we’ll all come together.” 

Stutes said most members in her caucus are aligned on not drawing more than is planned from the Permanent Fund’s earnings reserve. While the majority over the last two years was committed to not do that, Stutes was less definitive this year. She said the House Finance Committee will have a major say in it. 

“I think that that would probably like to be the hope of most people,” she said. “Whether it’s within the realm of possibility, I guess we’ll have to wait and see what Finance comes up with.”

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Chris Tuck will be the majority leader, while Wasilla Republican Rep. Cathy Tilton will be the minority leader. 

Nome Democratic Rep. Neal Foster and Eagle River Republican Rep. Kelly Merrick were named co-chairs of the House Finance Committee. Dillingham Rep. Bryce Edgmon, an independent nominated by the Democrats, will chair the Rules Committee, which determines which bills receive floor votes.

House committees are expected to start their work in the coming days.