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Alaska House ends month-long standoff, elects speaker

February 14, 2019
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Alaska state Rep. Bryce Edgmon takes the dais after being elected speaker of the House on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019, in Juneau, Alaska. Edgmon was elected speaker on the 31st day of the legislature. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Alaska state Rep. Bryce Edgmon, who changed his party affiliation from Democrat to undeclared earlier this week, was elected House speaker on Thursday, ending a standoff that had paralyzed the chamber.

The 21-18 vote came on the 31st day of the legislative session — the longest stretch the House had gone without electing a permanent speaker. It also came the day after Gov. Mike Dunleavy released a budget proposal with sweeping cuts.

The House was limited in what it could do without a permanent speaker and majority organization. While lawmakers held private and informational public meetings, they had yet to hear a single bill.

Edgmon, who is from Dillingham, was speaker during the last Legislature, when he led a largely Democratic coalition that also included currently serving Republican Reps. Louise Stutes and Gabrielle LeDoux and independent Dan Ortiz.

A state elections official said Edgmon changed his party affiliation from Democrat to undeclared earlier this week. Edgmon told reporters Thursday that helped get a majority organization together.

The Republicans supporting Edgmon for speaker Thursday were Stutes, who is from Kodiak, and Anchorage Reps. LeDoux, Jennifer Johnston and Chuck Kopp. Edgmon said Johnston and Kopp will be part of the majority, with Kopp slated to be majority leader.

It was not immediately clear how large the organization would be. But Edgmon said he expected Fairbanks Republican Rep. Steve Thompson and North Pole Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson to be a part of it.

Edgmon said Thompson was set to be House Rules chair and that Wilson and Democratic Rep. Neal Foster of Nome would be House Finance Committee co-chairs. Messages were left for Thompson and Wilson.

He said lawmakers have strived to put together a diverse coalition to attack issues that “may be among the most challenging that any Legislature has had to face, perhaps even in the history of Alaska.”

The budget, the annual dividend Alaskans receive from the state’s oil-wealth fund, the Alaska Permanent Fund, and crime are big issues this session.

In 1981, a permanent speaker wasn’t elected until the 22nd day of session. But that organization was tenuous and the speaker was later replaced.

Thursday’s vote followed multiple failed efforts to elect a speaker this session.

During a floor speech, Kopp said Rep. Dave Talerico, whom Republicans had repeatedly offered for the role of speaker, is a good friend. But Kopp said the gridlock had gone on too long, and something needed to change.

While Republicans hold 23 of the House’s 40 seats, three Republicans, Stutes, LeDoux and Rep. Gary Knopp, had not aligned with the GOP caucus, and Talerico could never muster the necessary support. Knopp was excused from the floor session Thursday.

Republican Rep. David Eastman of Wasilla said Alaskans wanted change, and a vote for Edgmon would be “flying in the face of the request of voters in this last election.”

Johnston said she was doing what she thought was right for Alaska in voting for Edgmon. “And what’s right for Alaska is that we get this House in order and we make it functional,” she said.