February 18

By James Brooks

For the first time in 31 years, Alaska’s sitting U.S. representative addressed a joint session of the Alaska Legislature.

Speaking in the state Capitol on Friday, Rep. Mary Sattler Peltola, D-Alaska, praised the bipartisan coalitions that control the state House and Senate, saying she’s frequently asked about “the Alaska model” of bipartisanship.

“It’s strange,” she said, “to hear something we take for granted here at home is so foreign in the rest of the country. But it’s also inspiring because it gives me faith that for all the challenges Alaska faces, we’re doing something right — we’ve sparked the interest of Americans who are tired of a broken system in D.C. that too often highlights gimmicks over policy.”

In the Alaska House, Republicans need the support of rural Democrats and independents to have a majority; in the Senate, roughly equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats have coalesced into a majority.

A month into the legislative session, the effects of that structure are starting to become clear.

Last week, the Washington Post noted that as Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis becomes more of a national figure, Republican-led states are adopting more Florida-style laws statewide.

These laws include limits on the rights of transgender residents, limits on the discussion of LGBTQ topics in schools and local book bans.

Alaska is a state where Republicans have won most races, but Florida-style legislation hasn’t advanced — or even been widely proposed — here.

Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton, noted that in Florida and similar states, having the judiciary, House, Senate and governor aligned in one party makes it easier to advance that kind of legislation.

“Here, it’s not that it can’t happen, it’s that it’s more work to make it work,” he said.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, a proposed constitutional amendment that would repeal the state’s ban on same-sex marriage hasn’t gotten a hearing.

The amendment has been unenforceable since a series of federal court rulings starting in 2014, but progressives have made its repeal a priority.

Speaking to legislators, Peltola emphasized the “value of speaking in one voice,” whether with the state’s response to Typhoon Merbok or state support for the Willow oil project on the North Slope.

“This has had a lot of input from non-Alaskans, and we need to make sure the rest of the United States understands how important this is to Alaskans on the ground,” she said, endorsing the Legislature’s efforts to pass a bipartisan resolution in support of the project.

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, noted that among the members of the Senate majority, there’s an agreement to not advance controversial legislation.

“We’ve agreed to work in the middle for the most part,” he said.

When it comes to Florida-style bills, “I just have to think it’s unlikely that we’re going to be dealing with them,” he said.

But while the bipartisan House and Senate majorities have stifled partisan legislation, it’s not yet clear whether they’ll be able to pass bills addressing priority issues.

Members of the Senate majority have said they want to focus on education funding and a worker shortage. Thirty days into the 121-day legislative session, committees have held many informational hearings on those topics, but legislation hasn’t advanced.

Peltola said she hopes the Legislature will address the state’s public employee retirement system, frequently cited as a reason for employee turnover.

“Hopefully it is tackled in this term and we’re not pushing it down the road,” she said.

In the House, members of the majority appear to be struggling to set a formal list of priorities. Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, said he’s working on elements of a state fiscal plan — long a priority of lawmakers — in the House Ways and Means Committee, but legislation is at least 30 days away, he said.

In a speech on the House floor this week, Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, said the House majority’s inability to set priorities is “actually a selling point for partisanship.”

Alaska’s ranked choice voting system, used for the first time last year, has sometimes been cited as a contributing factor in the creation of the coalitions in the House and Senate.

A new article published in the California Journal of Politics and Policy this week concluded that the system resulted in “generally more moderate outcomes than likely under the old rules.”

Hours before Peltola spoke to lawmakers, conservatives in Anchorage formally launched a signature drive intended to force a vote in 2024 on repealing ranked choice voting.

Several speakers said they want to see more conservative lawmakers.

Peltola said on Friday that she’s not sure that ranked choice voting is to blame for the creation of the legislative coalitions because Alaska has had them before. In rural Alaska, she said, national party priorities don’t match local needs.

“I think that it’s really out of necessity in Alaska,” she said. “We just don’t have the luxury of being deeply partisan. We have too much to get done.”