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Alaska turns right.

When 13 members of the Alaska Senate decided either not to run in the 1992 state election or to challenge vulnerable congressmen, they set off a chain of events that resulted in 22 freshmen being elected to the state House, and nine representatives moving up to the senior body.

In addition to the confusion created by so many newcomers, no clear party majorities were elected to either body. The Senate was evenly split with 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans. The House faced a similar problem with 20 Democrats, 18 Republicans and 2 Independents.

The election of Republican candidates to the House was the result of an organizational effort by the GOP in Anchorage. Before the 1992 general election, the state GOP instituted a closed primary, thereby preventing the crossover voting that has characterized Alaskan elections since the early '60s.

Chip Thoma, an environmental activist, says the closed primary was what helped the GOP seize the leadership in both bodies of the Legislature. "The Republican Party got more organized. The Pat Robertson people got everybody in Anchorage organized--the House people there got a lot of help. The closed primary kept a lot of people off the ballot. The Right asserted itself," Thoma says.

The closed primary was also effective in keeping the newly elected Republicans from joining a Democratic-led coalition. Just days after the general election, House Democrats announced that they had organized a majority coalition of their 20 members and 2 Independents. No Republicans joined the group. When the Democratic speaker-elect left the state on vacation, Representative Ramona Barnes of Anchorage seized the moment, and put together a new leadership coalition of Republicans and members of the "Bush Caucus," a voting bloc of mostly Democratic, mostly Native representatives from rural Alaskan villages, and became speaker.

Barnes offered the five-member Bush Caucus a better deal than they had with the Democrats, and while some critics faulted her for giving away major committee chairmanships, they could not argue with the fact that the GOP controlled the House.

Coalitions in the state Senate are the norm, and during the 16th Alaska Legislature (1989-1990) all but one member of the Senate were included in a "super-majority." It was surprising, then, that the Senate organized with an 11-member majority in 1992. Only one Democrat joined the Republican majority under Senate President Rick Halford. Observers had expected a larger majority coalition, but the Democrats held firm in the Senate, creating the first "real majority and real minority," as one senator put it, in many years.

The House was off to a slow start, as was expected with so many new members. According to Speaker Barnes, it took a full two months to bring the 14 new members of her caucus up to speed. Another problem Barnes had was putting together the roster for standing committees. "Obviously in a majority with 14 brand new people, there were not enough [with experience] to make up all of the committee slots--there was a long learning curve," Barnes said.

The large group of former representatives moving up to the senior body gave the Senate a more youthful appearance. "The Senate has a younger average age than the House," said Drue Pearce, Senate Finance co-chair. "We've changed dramatically in that way. We are acting more like the House--we have more debate, we discuss everything."

Senate President Halford sees the turnover in terms of the control the House leadership has gained. "The House leadership can convince the new members to do things more easily. It affects policy because there is a higher level of control and a lower level of information," Halford said.

In contrast, the Senate president has encountered a lack of leadership experience on his side of the aisle. Many of the House members who moved over to the Senate spent years in the House minority and never chaired committees nor had to make leadership decisions. "On the Senate side, a lot of members haven't been in a majority and don't have the legislative experience [of] being responsible for producing, for being critical," Halford said.

Even though the Republicans controlled both houses of the Alaska Legislature, it wasn't a smooth session. Because of narrow majorities, the minority caucuses played a major role in the way business was conducted. The most noticeable difference between the House and Senate was the relationship between the majority and minority. The Senate majority was shaken early in the session when its swing-vote, Senator George Jacko, was involved in a sexual harassment scandal, leaving the already vulnerable 11-member majority open to attack from an antagonistic minority. Months of skirmishing resulted in a Senate spending plan stripped of money and projects for minority members' districts and a noticeable lack of minority-sponsored legislation.

Gender may have played a role in the cooperative relationship between majority and minority in the House. Leadership positions in the House--speaker, majority and minority leaders and minority whip--are held by women. The House minority decided early on to cooperate with the leadership, and, in return, was included in the entire process.

"The leverage the minority got from being positive and supportive overshadowed the leverage we would get from being negative and combative," explained House Minority Leader Fran Ulmer. "The House minority got bills on the floor, and the House minority got discretionary money in the budget. We got Ramona [Barnes] to go to bat for us."

When the time came for the House and Senate to get together and decide on a spending plan for the state, the two versions of the budget collided.

Speaker Barnes had promised money to members of the House minority for projects that would not be included in the Senate's construction budget. Barnes, who prides herself on keeping her word, would not agree to cut allocations to a House minority member's district in order to fund projects for a Senate majority member's district. It quickly became clear that the House and Senate could not negotiate.

Speaker Barnes, with the agreement of the minority, used a Senate-passed bill as a vehicle, attached the House spending plan to it and adjourned for the year. The Senate did not follow suit, and the House was forced to reconvene three days later. When it became apparent that the Senate again would not negotiate, the House leadership requested that the governor adjourn the session and then call them back into a special session on the budget. The governor declined to get involved. Speaker Barnes adjourned again.

When the House reconvened three days later, the leadership of both houses finally agreed to negotiate a written, signed adjournment plan. The final plan met Barnes' criteria for fairness to minority members of the House.

In the final rewrite of the state's budget for 1994, the GOP leadership made cuts in welfare payments and in a popular senior citizen program, and they adopted the largest state-funded construction budget since the mid-'80s when petroleum fueled a building boom. "Going into this session there was substantial public opinion for those operating budget cuts and to increase capital spending," Senate President Halford said.

The state construction budget will fund new schools and rehabilitate existing schools with money appropriated from part of a windfall oil tax settlement. Multi-million dollar electric transmission projects allowing large areas of the state to share hydroelectric power will be funded with money that was set aside by previous legislatures for energy projects. A crime package will set up boot camps for nonviolent youthful offenders, and includes an anti-stalking law and legislation authorizing wiretapping in the course of murder and felony drug crime investigations.

Speaker Barnes did not get to adjourn early, as she had hoped at the beginning of the year, but an adjournment agreement that had at times looked impossible came together by the constitutionally imposed 120-day deadline.

The lesson freshmen legislators learned from their first session is that the end product of a legislature is the result of compromise. The budget the House and Senate finally hammered out has something in it for everyone and, typically, some members will take home more than others.

Women at the Wheel

Alaska's House of Representatives is run entirely by women, and it is probably the first time in U.S. history that a state legislative body has produced this kind of power base.

Women leaders include House Speaker Ramona Barnes, Majority Leader Gail Phillips, Minority Leader Fran Ulmer and Minority Whip Bettye Davis. Two more women are in influential committee positions. Eileen MacLean is co-chair of Finance and Cynthia Toohey co-chairs Health, Education and Social Services.

Alaska's first woman speaker, Representative Barnes is a tall, broad-shouldered blonde who retains much of her native-Tenessee accent. A conservative Republican, Barnes served six terms before being elected speaker.

While Speaker Barnes is often criticized for being temperamental and opinionated, no one doubts her honesty. The speaker's word is solid gold.

"The philosophy I have--the rules of the legislature say there will be proportional representation on all committees, and I have followed those rules. I believe in fair treatment of everybody," Barnes said in a recent interview.

The House minority is held together by Representative Ulmer, a three-term veteran who served as mayor of Juneau before running for the Legislature. Ulmer makes no secret that she wanted to be Alaska's first woman speaker, and that her agenda would have been different.

"I don't think women being in the leadership guarantees issues important to women. I have a more progressive agenda when it comes to women's issues, but those issues are not high on Ramona's list. Part of that is partly, and it's partly what she believes in," Ulmer said.

Alaska's first woman speaker does not promote a feminist agenda. "Just because I am a woman, why should I have a particular agenda? My agenda is the whole state," Barnes said. "Our capital budget advances the cause of the whole state. For example, safe village water." Barnes cited the fact that the House went with a larger allocation for safe water than did the Senate. "That advances everybody's cause considerably," she said.

Although they may be opposed to Speaker Barnes philosophically, Minority Leader Ulmer and other Democratic members of the House have worked closely with her. "The women in the House who hold leadership positions have worked together in previous years, and we've built up a trust that makes [working together] possible. My experience is when women approach a task they focus on getting it done with less competitiveness and more cooperation," Ulmer said.

Speaker Barnes noted that she worked with Representative Ulmer, Kay Brown and MacLean on the House, Finance Committee for four years, and she and Majority Leader Phillips served in the minority together. "We have a clean, mean, running machine. Aside from our differences, we work together," Barnes said.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of State Legislatures
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; Alaska Senate
Author:Helmar, Kimberly Metcalfe
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Aug 1, 1993
Previous Article:Freshman flex their muscles.
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