The new bipartisan House majority caucus. The leaders, seated left to right, include Majority Leader Chris Tuck, Rules Chairwoman Gabrielle LeDoux, Speaker Bryce Edgmon, and Finance Co-Chairman Paul Seaton. Pat Higgins (fourth from left) was not elected. His race with Charisse Millett was too close to call at the time of this photo. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO & APRN)

The biggest change in the Alaska Legislature happened two months ago, when Democrats gained control of the House for the first time in nearly 25 years. They won enough seats to form a bipartisan coalition. But is it enough to solve the persistent issue of balancing the state budget? Southeast lawmakers hope so. As part of CoastAlaska’s series on this year’s session, KCAW reports on how a shake-up in the House could shape Alaska in the long run.

Downloadable audio.

If Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins could put the last two years into words, it would be, “fractious, muddled, and convoluted.” He added, “These policy questions are tough enough.”

Time and again, the Alaska Legislature has failed to pass a comprehensive plan to balance the budget. That’s in part, the Sitka Democrat said, because the process of finding middle ground is easier said than done. “When you have a really complex problem, oftentimes the process is important. And I felt the process could have been done better the last two years, in thinking about how to take stock of the big spectrum of opinions and ideologies that exist the Alaska legislature, which is reflective of the big spectrum of opinions that Alaskans have.”

The Legislature will have a chance to crack the problem again this year. This past election brought new Democrats and independents into the House, and voted out some Republicans. That shift in power gave rise to a new majority. The House’s “bipartisan coalition” has 17 Democrats, two independents, and three Republicans. Southeast membership includes Rep. Dan Ortiz (I-Ketchikan), Rep. Justin Parish (D-Juneau), Rep. Sam Kitto III (D-Juneau) and Rep. Kreiss-Tomkins (D-Sitka). 

Juneau Democrat Sam Kito said they’re all pledging to make the ideal of compromise a working reality. “The key point is getting along, is communicating. We don’t have to be friends, but we have to be colleagues. We have to work professionally together,” Kito said. 

The last bipartisan coalition was in the state Senate, from 2007 to 2013. Sitka Republican Bert Stedman was a part of it. Now, with more Southeast lawmakers in the House Majority, he thinks the region will benefit – particularly when it comes to securing funding for the marine highway. “We’ve been ganged up on by the Railbelt the last few years, so I’m looking forward to working with my Reps in trying to level the playing field on a couple issues,” Stedman said. 

His colleague across the aisle – Democrat Dennis Egan of Juneau – hopes that the coalition while inspire the Senate, which has a Republican majority, to work together. “Let’s do Alaskanism. Let’s fight about Alaska. Don’t be socialist. Don’t be conservative or capitalist. Let’s do what’s best for Alaska. No name calling,” Egan said. 

Rep. Bryce Edgmon was in his office shortly before being sworn in as the first Alaska House speaker of Alaska Native heritage. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and APRN)

When it comes to tact, House lawmakers also have good things to say about their new speaker, Dillingham Democrat Bryce Edgmon. He’s the first House speaker of Alaska Native descent and the first off the road system or outside Southeast Alaska since the 1940s. 

Senator Dennis Egan: I know Bryce well. The only problem is he’s not going to be able to perform at Folk Festival anymore in Juneau (laughs). Because he’s going to be too darn busy.

Rep. Sam Kito: He brings a very subtle sense of humor that I think is very important to keep the tensions down.

Rep. Justin Parish: I think he’s one of the smartest guys in the room and I’m very glad to have him on our side.

Juneau Democrat Justin Parish is new to the Legislature and ran specifically to take part in the bipartisan coalition, which has been years in the making. The educator has high hopes for working with Governor Bill Walker as well. “We’ve already had some conversations with the Governor and they’ve been very positive so far,” Parish said. 

Southeast Democrats have also assumed new leadership roles. Kito is chair of the Legislative Council and the Labor and Commerce Committees, where he wants to look at ways to decrease the cost of health insurance and diversify the labor force. Parish will co-chair Regional and Community Affairs. And Kreiss-Tomkins will head up State Affairs, a possible landing strip for bills related the Permanent Fund, eliminating daylight savings and other divisive matters.

Despite this, Kreiss-Tomkins wants to run a committee that stays the course of bipartisanship.”That good ideas are advanced because they’re good ideas and it doesn’t matter one darn bit who’got what letter next to his or her name,” he added. 

While process matters, lawmakers will have to deliver a product that pencils out too. The state’s budget deficit this year is anticipated to be $3 billion, and there’s only one year of savings left in in the Constitutional Budget Reserve. 

Listen to Southeast lawmakers weigh in on other issues too:

Ferries – Coastal lawmakers consider ferry system’s future

ADF&G –  Southeast legislators hope to maintain Fish & Game funding

Education – Southeast legislators hesitant to cut education funding

The 30th Session of the Alaska Legislature began last week (01-17-17) and will continue for 90 days.