AJOC EDITORIAL: House heads for shakeup, but do Alaskans care?
Much like Usain Bolt in the 100-meter dash, contests for the state Legislature in November figure to be races in name only.
What drama could be found took place on primary night and ended up decided by a tiny fraction of Alaskans even in the contested elections.
Democrats succeeded in toppling one of their top targets within their party — Rep. Bob Herron of Bethel — and Republicans did the same by taking out one of their own as George Rauscher defeated Rep. Jim Colver in the Mat-Su Valley.
The Democrats may go two-for-two in their efforts to knock off members of their party from Bush Alaska who caucus with the Republican-led Majority of the state House. Rep. Ben Nageak was leading by just nine votes against Dean Westlake with 87 percent of the vote counted as of this writing.
GOP interests failed to take out Rep. Paul Seaton of Homer, another prime target from their ranks, and saw influential members of their House delegation fail in their bids to elevate to the Senate with the losses of Reps. Lynn Gattis of Wasilla and Craig Johnson of Anchorage.
Seaton and Colver are members of the self-titled “Musk Ox” caucus that coalesced late in 2015 when the Republican leadership, frustrated with Democrats holding out votes to reach the magic 30 of 40 to draw from state savings in the Constitutional Budget Reserve, introduced a measure that would have emptied the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve into the CBR in order to remove the requirement for a three-fourths vote to fund the budget.
The Musk Ox caucus continued to draw party ire in 2016 as they joined with Democrats on bills sharply curtailing the state’s oil and gas tax credit program, creating an embarrassing situation for House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, who couldn’t wrangle his majority and had to pull bills from the floor once it became apparent he didn’t have the votes.
Chenault, who served a record four terms as Speaker, is stepping down from that role although he is headed back to Juneau with no opposition either in the primary or general elections.
With only half of the body up for reelection, the Republican-dominated Senate shouldn’t look much different in 2017. That can’t be said for the House after the primary shakeups and the entry of a yet undetermined Speaker.
No matter what happens in Nageak’s race, there is a strong possibility for a bipartisan coalition of some kind that could end up controlled by Democrats, who already succeeded this year in determining votes by linking with the Musk Ox Republicans and a couple other stray members of the Majority.
The Democrat minority had 13 members last year including independent-in-name-only Dan Ortiz of Ketchikan, who will face a Republican challenger in the general election.
If Ortiz returns, Nageak loses, and other districts maintain the status quo, the Democrat caucus would number 15. The five remaining members of the Musk Ox group could create a caucus of 20, which still isn’t enough to control the House.
That would leave the Musk Ox Republicans with a choice of being a minority within their own party, or a minority among their supposed opposition party.
Seaton, who’s opposed the oil and gas tax credit program and proposed a state income tax, aligns well with the Democrats on their favorite means of closing the budget gap.
Attacking the state’s No. 1 industry and going after the state’s federal taxpayers are bad policies but make for good politics, and they also happen to jive with Gov. Bill Walker’s revenue strategies even though they’ll diverge sharply on reducing the PFD to completely close the deficit.
This is probably a good time to recall that when 10 Democrats and six Republicans formed the Bipartisan Senate Majority they passed the most bloated budgets in Alaska history from 2006-2012.
In the end, it’s difficult to tell if Alaskans even care who goes to Juneau.
The highest turnout in any district on primary night was 21 percent in Herron’s race vs. Zach Fansler, followed by 18 percent in Seaton’s race.
While it’s understandable that uncontested primaries had pathetic turnout with no statewide ballot initiatives to draw attention, seeing turnout of 15 percent to 17 percent in supposedly competitive elections in the Valley, Eagle River and South Anchorage sends a pretty clear message to legislators: We don’t give a flying you-know-what.
It’s bad enough that districts have been so gerrymandered as to render nearly every race uncompetitive. It’s worse when even in races that matter more than 8 in 10 Alaskans didn’t bother to register an opinion.
An old axiom is that we get the government we deserve, and Alaskans’ nonchalance in the face of serious times means we’re going to get it good and hard.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].