Alaska Democrats call for ‘caucus of the whole’ to solve budget crisis
Updated at 6:40 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 9
JUNEAU — Minority leaders from the Alaska House and Senate are proposing the creation of a “caucus of the whole” for the remainder of the 2016 legislative session.
Minority members from both sides said Monday that the traditional majority and minority caucus system is preventing fiscal solutions and believe that having joint caucus meetings would allow political cover to address proposed solutions to Alaska’s unprecedented budget shortfall in a bipartisan way.
The Senate minority leader, Democratic Sen. Berta Gardner of Anchorage, said so far this session lawmakers on both sides have been reluctant to share ideas.
“I’m not prepared to talk to people outside of my caucus about what I really, really want in specifics,” said Gardner. “That’s not my role, it’s the role of leadership to say this is what we propose.”
Gardner said she recognized the “burden” that the majority has in proposing a plan right now. She says her caucus is prepared to share that burden and be frank with each other.
“For right now, it’s not my responsibility to say this is what our fiscal plan should look like,” said Gardner.
The minority says it’s concerned that the challenges ahead related to the state’s fiscal crisis have the ability to “overwhelm” the Alaska Legislature under the current bipartisan system.
“Many lawmakers are ignoring their duty to protect the Alaska economy and way of life as they try to address the ever-growing budget deficit caused by low oil prices and continued production decline,” wrote Rep. Chris Tuck in a press release Monday morning.
Tuck told reporters at a press conference Monday that the legislature was caught “flat-footed” last year by waiting until the end of session to join forces on the budget.
“Nobody wants to go through what we went through last year, special session after special session after special session. It really is important that we have more dialogue,” Tuck said.
Rep. Tuck and Sen. Gardner say they met with House Speaker Mike Chenault and Senate president Kevin Meyer Monday morning to discuss the idea — the first discussion on the proposal.
“I was actually very pleased with the reception from Sen. Meyer. He has experience in this kind of thing,” Gardner said, referring to Meyer’s involvement in previous bipartisan coalitions. “He had questions and we don’t have all the answers.”
Minority leaders weren’t able to answer many of the logistical questions posed by reporters, like who would chair the caucus, whether that would change pay grades or how committee chairs would be designated thereafter.
“We’re not having a vision of must-haves because that sort of defeats the whole purpose,” said Gardner. “Everything’s open for negotiation.”
Sen. Bill Wielechowski said he was involved in a similar bi-partisan working group his first year in office. He says committee leadership was shifted then, and resulted in large savings. It’s a time he refers to as a “golden era” in Alaska politics.
“It worked great, we saved $18 billion,” said Wielechowski, who says he recognizes this to be a difficult time for majority members.
The proposal was presented by many in the minority as a way to give cover to the majority to make politically unpopular proposals for a fiscal plan.
“I don’t know why you’d need cover to do the right thing,” said Rep. David Guttenberg, who supports the idea of a united caucus.
Minority leaders say they’re anxiously awaiting an answer from their majority counterparts.
“If it’s going to happen, I think we’ll know fairly soon, but we haven’t set a hard date,” said Gardner.
In an interview Monday afternoon, Senate President Kevin Meyer said he didn’t think his caucus would go for the idea of holding closed-door joint caucus meetings.
“When you do close the doors, you say things in confidence and you just never know where it’s going to go, especially when it comes to election time,” Sen. Meyer said. “Sometimes you say stuff that could be used against you. Hopefully that wouldn’t happen, but I’m sure it’s gonna be a concern.”
Sen. Meyer said there are still a lot of logistics to work through on how a joint caucus would function and worries getting through those would take too much time. He’d propose a more informal type of collaboration.
“I think that will work better than when you try to do something formal because then you could spend a lot of time, ‘Okay, who’s gonna chair?’,” said Sen. Meyer. “Who’s gonna do what? When do you meet? Is it closed-door or is it open-door? So I think we’ll progress as we are.”
Rep. Mike Chenault said he would consider the idea.
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