Inside America's most dysfunctional legislative body

Inside America's most dysfunctional legislative body
© iStock/Madeline Monroe

A devastating pandemic has sickened more than 50,000 Alaskans. The attending economic collapse has left thousands more out of work, in a state that depends heavily on tourism dollars from what they call the Outside. Low oil prices are pressuring the state’s dominant industry, which is shedding jobs.

In the midst of these mounting crises, the Alaska state House is paralyzed by inaction, ground to a halt by a clash between coalitions that cannot agree on the most basic organizing questions that would allow it to function.

The split is so bad that the two factions — 20 Republicans on one side, 16 Democrats, three independents and one Republican on the other — only agreed on a temporary speaker to run the chamber on Thursday, on the ninth official day of session.

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Both factions have nominated candidates to serve as temporary Speaker, and all five votes so far have deadlocked at 20 votes in favor and 20 votes opposed.

“The tide has to break. The question is, what will break?” said Art Hackney, an Alaska Republican strategist who advises several legislators. “It just takes one person, and then bang, that’ll determine who the Speaker is.”

But in a sign of just how mired the legislature is, members did not even bother to nominate candidates for Speaker in three consecutive sessions held last month.

The unique regional interests that dominate Alaskan politics can result in hodgepodge coalitions that can hand power to a party that may not hold a majority of seats. After the 2018 election, and a similar monthlong delay in leadership elections, a coalition of both Democrats and a few Republicans elected state Rep. Bryce Edgmon (D) as Speaker.

Republicans revolted, and national dollars flowed into primary challenges against several of the Republicans who sided with Edgmon. All but two of the turncoats lost renomination.

But Edgmon’s faction has so far managed to hold state Rep. Louise Stutes (R), who represents Kodiak Island, one of the communities that depends on the ferry system. And Edgmon is said to be wooing others, including state Rep. Bart LeBon (R), with plum committee posts.

“They’re sitting back and waiting for one of the Republicans to fold for the sake of some position that they think will be of help to them,” Hackney said.

The 20 Republicans have held regular conference meetings to keep their members in line. They nominated LeBon as their candidate for temporary speaker twice; both times he failed to win a majority.

But both sides see a looming Feb. 15 deadline, when Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s (R) emergency authority expires, as a crucial tipping point at which they must act or risk serious consequences for the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“If the House is not organized by then, all the testing and capacity to squash the coronavirus will get dismantled,” Suzanne Downing, author of a widely read blog on Alaska politics, wrote in an email. “Could be a big deal, since we have hospital capacity limits and other unique conditions.”

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Dunleavy himself has not played an active role in mediating the dispute. He has feuded with legislators in recent years over the size of a proposed dividend from the state’s Permanent Fund, which collects oil and gas taxes from producers.

At the federal level, Alaska remains a solidly red state. Former President TrumpDonald TrumpOmar, Muslim Democrats decry Islamophobia amid death threats On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Trump cheers CNN's Cuomo suspension MORE carried its three electoral votes by a 10-point margin in 2020, and Sen. Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanMan charged with threatening Alaska senators pleads not guilty China conducts combat readiness drill after US congressional delegation arrives in Taiwan Overnight Defense & National Security — A new plan to treat Marines 'like human beings' MORE (R) won reelection by almost 13 points.

But at the state level, coalitions are defined by shifting regional balances. Legislators from the Railbelt, which connects Fairbanks with Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula, compete with Coastal Alaska legislators who hail from fishing communities that rely on a state-funded ferry system that has come under financial pressure in recent years. Many legislators from the rural Bush are Alaska Natives, Democrats who value the oil and gas industry that funds their communities.

“Alaska has trended towards the national norm of much less split-ticket voting. Where the exception has been is in Coastal Alaska, these coastal fishing communities that seem out of step with Republicans,” said John-Henry Heckendorn, an Anchorage-based strategist. “Rural and Coastal Alaska has drifted away from the Republican Party.”

The logjam in Juneau has put the brakes on any efforts to address any of the state’s mounting crises. Even seasoned political hands say they are getting tired of the constant gridlock.

“There are a lot of issues up here,” Hackney said. “And there aren’t a lot of happy solutions.”

Updated: 9:43 p.m.