SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND NO-RULES CAUCUS TOOK ITS TOLL
The drama of the Alaska House both last year and this year culminated this month with a painful limp over the finish line after a brutal 18 months of a “no caucus rules” Democrat-led majority.
Just last year, the new House liberal majority, feeling its oats and ready to rumble, censured Rep. David Eastman , a freshman Republican, for comments he made while not in the chamber.
Rep. Ivy Spohnholz led the chest-beating about Eastman’s remarks about rural women and their possible abortion-and-shopping trips to the city. Democrats, including Reps. Dean Westlake and Zach Fansler, chastened Eastman and tried to shame the Republican minority in the House, too.
A year later, not one, but three of the Democrats were forced from office for offenses against women: Westlake and Fansler were removed. Rep. Justin Parish was shamed into not running again. At least one other is running scared — scared that people will find out about his dalliances with staff members.
The Democrats went from a majority of 22 to a fragile majority that teetered on 21 and at times 20, as first Rep. John Lincoln and then Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky were selected to replace Westlake and Fansler. They were solid, but they were brand new.
The Democrats were in trouble. They had a nonbinding caucus and the Rules Chair, Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, had but one friend left in the House — Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak. By April things were going quite sideways for both of those women, who had already been kicked out of the Alaska Republican Party for double-crossing the Republican caucus.
Then Rep. Sam Kito of Juneau said he wasn’t running again, and his votes and behavior started making the Democratic majority nervous. He was erratic. They could not count on him.
This weekend, the operating budget was held up in the House for 24 hours because Kito was demanding that LeDoux be kicked out of the caucus. That, and he wanted $40 million for the ferry system. Or else.
The House leadership was split for much of the session, not only over whether to pay out a full Permanent Fund dividend, but also they were divided on the details of the restructuring of the Permanent Fund, moving to an endowment model — the POMV, as its called.
Between the reputation hits the Democrats were taking with Westlake, Fansler, and Parish, and the mess that the House had made in the fall during special session, when the governor asked for fixes to Senate Bill 91, (Senate Bill 54 reforming criminal justice reform), things had snowballed.
Democrats had sought repeated taxes on Alaskans and had gotten none, as the Senate held firm.
They’d sought levies on the oil industry, and gotten none, as the Senate held firm.
They had rashly tried to stuff the capital budget into the operating budget in 2017 (which ultimately went nowhere) and in 2018 sent over an education funding package to the Senate that had no funding attached to it (yet another embarrassment).
And this year, they all face re-election.
The Senate, a solid conservative majority, recognized that the House was in a mess and offered help: Pass a POMV bill and you can have your education funding for this year and next, the Senate offered. The House could either dig in its heels or agree. It agreed.
And miraculously, even Rep. Geran Tarr, who is rabidly anti-oil, pulled back her oil tax bill. Her co-chair of Resources Committee, Rep. Andy Josephson, let the oil tax credit bonding bill move ahead, even through he hates tax credits.
It was almost as if the House Democrats were saying, “OK, we’ve tried it the Bernie Sanders way. Now let’s try it the Joseph Lieberman way.” Enough of ideologues, it was time to deal.
And so, no taxes on Alaskans.
No taxes on oil producers.
Full funding of education.
Creative funding mechanism for past-due oil tax credits.
Funding for troopers.
And a budget that is bigger than what the Senate wanted but not embarrassingly so.
Speaker Bryce Edgmon, who had watched as his entire no-rules caucus nearly come apart at the seams with class warfare breaking out all over, was able to bring his whole difficult crew together to adjourn in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
Some say there is a maturing that has occurred. Others say it’s been a humbling experience for the Democrats, who have been embarrassed repeatedly by their butt-grabbing, cheek-slapping colleagues.
Being in a position where they have actually had to lead may have forced some of the Democrats to understand that lawmaking is about the art of compromise with an imperfect organization made up of mere mortals.