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Alaska House has yet to organize about a month into session

February 12, 2019

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Almost all Alaska House members have been able to make about $8,000 each in allowances so far this legislative session while the chamber has been at a standstill.

The lack of an organized majority has left the House unable to set up any formal committees or hear a single bill. Lawmakers said Monday they’ve kept busy with constituent work and getting up to speed on various issues, with some saying they’ve gotten little pushback from people in their districts.

But with the scheduled 90-day session nearly one-third over, frustration is bubbling up.

Rep. Dave Talerico, a leader of the Republican caucus, said Alaska residents are upset and “have every right to be.” He said assignments of “significant power and position” have been offered in hopes of luring lawmakers to join a GOP-led majority, with little response.

“Every day that we sit here without a fully-functional government, we waste valuable dollars that we cannot get back,” Talerico said in a statement. He knocked as unrealistic the concept of a power-sharing structure that has been floated.

The 40-member House has 23 Republicans but just 20 of them have been aligned with the GOP caucus. Alaska lawmakers don’t always organize strictly along party lines.

However, Republican Rep. Gary Knopp, who left the GOP caucus in December, told the Anchorage Daily News late Monday he would vote to support a Republican-led coalition or caucus.

There has been worry given the big issues this session that a majority organization too small in size wouldn’t be able to function well. Major issues include the budget, crime and the annual dividend paid to Alaskans using earnings from the state’s oil-wealth fund.

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

Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt said he wouldn’t characterize the time so far this session as wasted, saying it’s allowed lawmakers to learn more about each other and the positions they hold strongly.

“It’s not the most efficient” use of time, he said, “but it hasn’t been a total loss.”

Juneau’s two House members and its senator do not qualify for the $302 daily allowance that other lawmakers can get. The allowance will rise to $322 in mid-April.

Democratic Rep. Grier Hopkins said there has been frustration, particularly among fellow freshmen, who are eager to get to work.

“It bothers me a fair bit that we haven’t organized and we haven’t been able to find that middle ground that so many of us feel like we have together and share,” he said.

Without a permanent speaker, the House is limited in what it can do. No bills have been introduced, but legislators have had private meetings and informational public meetings.

Majority members often get committee chairmanships and larger offices. Legislators, like Pruitt, still had artwork propped against desks or walls, since they don’t know yet which office they’ll end up in and don’t want to bother decorating temporary digs.

Democratic Rep. Bryce Edgmon, who was speaker the last two years, told reporters recently that even if the House were organized it would still be awaiting budget details. Gov. Mike Dunleavy is expected to release his budget plan Wednesday.

Edgmon oversaw a 22-member majority during his tenure and noted at times it was “virtually a vertical climb to get things done.”

It’s important to have a majority “that can function during what clearly is going to be some pretty tumultuous times ahead,” he said.

Voters approved a 90-day session, though the state constitution allows for regular sessions of up to 121 days with an option to extend for an additional 10.

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