A whirlwhind week at the state capitol

Budget released, House gets a speaker

The last week at the Alaska State Capitol was the most exciting yet of the 31st Legislative Session.

Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai, had many thinking he would vote Rep. Dave Talerico, R-Healy, to be Speaker of the House on Monday night, when he told the Anchorage Daily News he would vote for a Republican speaker. This would have given Republicans control in the House, Senate and Governor’s Office. But Knopp surprised nearly everyone, Tuesday morning, when he was nominated to be Speaker of the House. Rep. David Eastman, a Wasilla Republican, asked Knopp to clarify his statements made to the press.

“I never said who I would support,” Knopp told Eastman and the rest of the body. “I am in support of a Republican nominee, myself.” After that statement, Knopp voted for himself. Both Knopp and Talerico garnered 20-20 splits that day.

After the Tuesday vote, Knopp told the Empire he would be holding out for a strong bipartisan coalition.

“There’s a lot of people just adamant about positions of power. Some are just adamant about being down the party line and it’s more about the party than public policy,” Knopp said on Tuesday. “I think when people start agreeing about that — it’s about what’s in the best interest regardless of where they sit in the organization. I think you’ll finally get there when people start realizing this needs to be about what’s the greater good and not about the party.”

Knopp’s words foreshadowed what was to come.

On Thursday, two Republicans voted for Rep. Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham to be Speaker of the House. With Knopp absent, Edgmon secured his position as presiding officer with a 21 – 18 vote.

[‘To hell with politics’: House speaker elected after two Republicans cross party lines]

Just before the vote, Rep. Jennifer Johnston, an Anchorage Republican, said, “To hell with politics. I’m going to do what is right for Alaska.”

Rep. Chuck Kopp, Anchorage, was the other Republican who joined the House Majority with his vote.

By the end of Thursday Reps. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole; Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks and Bart LeBon, R-Fairbanks, had also joined the House Majority Coalition to give the caucus 25 members total.

Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, then became the leader of the all-Republican House Minority.

It was Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget that ultimately goaded the House to choose sides. His budget proposes to cut $1.6 billion from the the operating budget. Dunleavy has promised to cut the budget so that expenditures would be equal to revenue.

For more than five years the legislature has used savings to meet budget shortfalls.

Dunleavy’s budget proposes to make large cuts on expenditures such as government travel to save Alaska money.

But Dunleavy’s unprecedented proposal irked many. On Wednesday afternoon, there was a rally for education funding on the steps of the capitol. The University of Alaska system could be cut nearly in half if the $155 million cut stays. UA President Jim Johnsen said that would result in 1,300 jobs being lost.

“Cuts at this level cannot simply be managed or accommodated,” Johnsen said in a press release. “If this budget passes the Legislature, it will devastate university programs and services, and the negative effects will be felt in communities across the entire state.”

The proposed $271 million cut to Medicaid also drew criticism. Becky Hultberg, CEO and president of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, said it was an “outrageous proposal.”

“While Gov. Dunleavy may not believe government has a role in health care, his belief is disconnected from the reality that our current health care system relies on government payments for a significant percentage of total services, and our entire system will crumble without them,” Hultberg said in the release. “This is a classic example of ideology taking precedent over practicality, and all Alaskans will feel the consequences.”

And the Senate Finance Committee got to work on the budget, which is a priority. On Thursday, Senators learned more about the proposal to send inmates out of state to save approximately $12.8 million. This would also close down a wing of the Wildwood Correction Center near Kenai.

The Senate Finance Committee will continue departmental reviews next week.

• Contact reporter Kevin Baird at 523-2258.