Sick and tired of political gridlock?

It’s understandable. Congress, locked in partisan combat, isn’t getting much done.

In Juneau, there’s fighting over the size of the Permanent Fund Dividend.

Can politicians ever work together to get things done?

Actually they can, and are.

It’s like small flowers sprouting in arid desert after a rain, but there were encouraging signs of bipartisan action on bills during the Legislature’s regular session this spring, which ended May 19 (lawmakers are now meeting in a special session).

Clear evidence of this came in two minority Republican bills that passed the House, which is largely controlled by Democrats, and one minority Democrat bill that passed the Republican-controlled Senate as well as the House and is now on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s desk.

What was most remarkable was the approval by the House of HB 125 by Rep. David Nelson, an Anchorage Republican, and HB 53 by Rep. Ken McCarty, Republican of Eagle River and Chugiak.  

Nelson’s bill would expand a state hiring preference for veterans to include military spouses and dependents. McCarty’s bill would ease problems children in military families transferring to Alaska sometimes have in enrolling in public schools here.

Both are now in the state Senate, where they will be considered in the 2022 legislative session.

An observation political veterans make about the bills by Nelson and McCarty is that it’s highly unusual – some say it’s unheard of – for a Majority organization in Alaska’s Legislature to allow Minority members and particularly first-session freshmen, to be prime sponsors on bills that pass, at least the state House.

Both HB 125 and HB 53 have broad support, evidenced by the cosponors, both Democrat and Republican, but to allow a freshman from the Minority to be prime sponsor of a bill that passes is highly unusual. 

Usually, to get bills passed members of the Minority, particularly freshmen, have to scurry to find a Majority member to be prime sponsor, who then gets the credit.

These bills are hardly controversial, but that this happened is seen as a signal that the House leadership, led by House Speaker Louise Stutes, is more open to working with the Republican Minority than was the case in the past.

A similar scenario played out in the state Senate this spring, too. The Senate is firmly under Republican control, but the leadership allowed Democratic Sen. Scott Kawasaki’s SB 12 to pass the body and go to the House, where it also passed.

The bill would facilitate professional licensing for military spouses who are transferred to Alaska and hold licenses from other states.

Kawasaki is a veteran legislator and he has worked on this bill for years without success. This year Republican Senate leaders, led by Senate president Peter Micchiche, allowed it to move.

There are other examples:

A bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Begich, an Anchorage Democrat, that expands energy efficiency efforts in public buildings, advanced through Senate committees and is now in the Senate Finance Committee.

Also, many parts of another bill by Begich expanding early education for children is now part if a comprehensive bill assembled by the Senate Education Committee, which is chaired by Anchorage Sen. Roger Holland, a Republican.

This bill also includes parts of an early education bill by Sen. Shelly Hughes, Republican from the Mat-Su, as well as elements of an earlier proposal on reading by the governor.

The evolution of the Senate committee bill, SB 111, is itself an example of the efficiency of the Legislature’s committee process, where different ideas from different bills are proposed and debated, and then combined.

Hughes and Begich are both members of this committee, and though from different parties they successfully argued the merits of their ideas.

What’s also interesting is that the core of the Senate’s leadership is on this committee. Hughes and Begich are the Majority and Minority leaders respectively, and Sen. Micciche, the Senate President, is also a member.

Meanwhile, SB 111 is now at an advanced stage in the Senate Finance Committee. The state House is meanwhile working on its version of an early education bill, HB 164, which is in the House Education Committee.

Another kind of bipartisan action can happen when similar bills advance separately in the Senate and House sponsored be legislators of the different parties.

This was shown this year when Sen. Hughes’ SB 23, making changes in the state’s small pilot industrial hemp program, to conform with federal law, passed the Legislature. 

A similar bill in the state House, HB 156 by Rep. Grier Hopkins, a Fairbanks Democrat, had advanced to the House Rules Committee, one step before final action in the House.

The Legislature’s custom on that when there are similar bills in both bodies, whichever bill passes first typically becomes the official vehicle in the other body, a procedural move that speeds things along.

In this case Hughes’ SB 27 passed first and was then substituted in the House for HB 156, and went on to be approved. Had Hopkins’ bill passed first the same scenario would likely have played out in the Senate.

The work on the bill by Hopkins in the House helped speed the final bill though to passage, even though it was a Republican bill. 

It’s also worth noting that bipartisan backing for an industrial hemp program in Alaska has a long history. Republican Hughes was active in earlier years in getting the pilot hemp program approved, but so was Democratic Rep. Geran Tarr in the House along with several other Democrats and Republicans in that body.


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