In Alaska politics, House and Senate majorities drive the legislative agenda and confer upon their members key committee positions with an agreement they will all vote together on the budget and often procedural matters.
But some Republican lawmakers, including at least two in the GOP-led Senate majority, say that system is flawed — even “un-American,” as Palmer Sen. Shelley Hughes described it — and should be scrapped. They say it forces support of legislation before it’s drafted.
But Senate leaders say without so-called binding caucuses, legislative sessions could be never-ending. They say lawmakers voluntarily agree to be part of a majority, and can leave the caucus any time they want.
“It’s not the Hotel California,” Senate Finance Committee Co-chair Natasha von Imhof, an Anchorage Republican, said.
Binding caucuses aren’t new in Alaska, and legislators have gotten kicked out of majorities for running afoul of the rules, or, in some cases, exiled themselves to vote as they wished.
There are other states with different systems: Colorado’s constitution, for example, bars anyone in a party caucus from requiring a yes or no vote on any bill, appointment, veto or other measure in the Legislature. In Ohio, committee chairs serve at the will of the House speaker or Senate president or minority leader, and have lost their positions for actions the respective leader might see as insubordination.
In the interest of passing a budget, current Alaska Senate majority members agree to participate in crafting a spending plan and voting for it, Senate President Cathy Giessel has said. Being in the majority has perks, such as committee chairmanships or additional staff.
Three senators whose actions last July Giessel said were at odds with the caucus agreement — Hughes and Sens. Mike Shower of Wasilla and Lora Reinbold of Eagle River — lost key positions in a committee shakeup last month.
Reinbold had voted against a bill aimed at largely restoring vetoes made by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. The bill also included funding for an Alaska Permanent Fund dividend check of about $1,600 for residents. Shower and Hughes were shown as excused on the final vote. All three supported a larger dividend in line with a long-standing formula many legislators see as unsustainable.
Shower, who introduced a bill and proposed constitutional amendment seeking to bar binding caucuses, said Thursday he had voted for versions of the operating and capital budgets and protested the July vote. He said he and Hughes figured they’d be called in and forced to vote but instead were excused.
He said this isn’t about Senate leadership. “It is about the process, the structure that is in place that we’re trying to make better,” Shower said.
“Why does somebody have to promise more, if they’re in a Republican majority, than just agreeing to the principles and then we work together as a team to find solutions?” said Shower, who didn’t initially join a caucus after being appointed to the Senate in 2018.
He said if he leaves the caucus, other Republicans could leave, too, and Republicans could join with Democrats to form a new majority. “I don’t necessarily want to cause that to happen,” he said.
He said his decision on a budget will be based on facts and whether he thinks it is a good one.
Sen. John Coghill, a North Pole Republican, said caucus members give their word that they’re willing to work with a team.
He said last month he didn’t see the committee changes as punishment but “a consequence of you not being able to hold up what you thought you would be able to do.”