The day after he was elected to an eighth term representing District 31 in the Alaska House, Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, joined two other Republicans, 17 Democrats and two independents to form a new House majority caucus. Seaton will be co-chair of Finance for the operating budget — his only committee assignment.
“Writing the operating budget is a big enough job,” Seaton said on Monday in a phone call from Seattle.
Seaton joined two other moderate Republicans, Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak to caucus with Democrats. With two independents, that gives the bipartisan caucus a 22-member majority in the 40-member House. Seaton said he organized with the new caucus not by party affiliation but on the principle of creating a sustainable fiscal plan.
With oil revenues declining and not enough to support previous budgets, and state savings accounts dwindling, Seaton favors a combination of new taxes, a reallocation of some Permanent Fund Dividends to the general fund and cuts to keep Alaska running.
“I told people explicitly during the primary that I saw the organization in the next legislature being around that principle,” Seaton said. “If anybody didn’t know my position, it was because they weren’t paying attention.”
The Alaska Democratic Party praised the new caucus.
“With new Democratic leadership in the State House, we have the opportunity to set a new course for a fair, sustainable and prosperous future,” said Casey Steinau, chair of the party. “Democrats know we have to work together, no matter the party, and put forward serious solutions to our fiscal problems if we are going to move Alaska forward.”
Seaton won in the general election with no opposition, but won a plurality in the Republican primary against two candidates, Anchor Point businessman John Cox and former Homer Mayor Mary E. “Beth” Wythe.
Seaton won 48 percent of the vote to 27 percent for Cox and 24 percent for Wythe.
If Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, holds onto her seat, and if Seaton, LeDoux and Stutes had not joined the bipartisan caucus, that would have given Republicans a majority caucus of 22 members. In latest election results, Millett leads her challenger, Pat Higgins, by 53 votes, 3,418 to 3,365.
Republican Party Chairman Tuckerman Babcock released a stern letter to the three defecting Republicans criticizing their move.
“You won your elections running as Republicans in your respective districts. That was an illusion, a false picture you presented to the voters of your districts,” Babcock wrote. “We invite you to drop the pretense that you are Republican and leave the Republican Party.”
In a phone interview on Tuesday, Babcock said he deferred to the judgment of the voters in nominating the Republican candidates. Wythe got support from a political action group trying to unseat Seaton in the primary, but the Republican Party took no stand in the race.
“We totally trust the Republican Party voter to pick the winner,” Babcock told the Homer News in August after Seaton won.
While the Republican primary is closed to members of other parties, nonpartisan voters can choose the Republican Party ballot.
Seaton said he considers himself a “big tent” Republican like Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower in defining himself as a party member.
“It depends on whether people have the philosophy that it’s a big tent, which is my philosophy and Ike’s philosophy, or you have a small pathway, which appears to be Tuckerman Babcock’s way,” Seaton said.
Babcock said his concern was not Seaton’s philosophy, but that he didn’t commit to the Republican majority.
“That is something you do not do to your team, anymore than you do with a volleyball team going to the tournament,” Babcock said.
He acknowledged that the previous House caucus had Democrats in the caucus. The Democratic Party targeted one of those Democrats, Rep. Ben Nageak, D-Barrow/Utqiagvik, who lost in a close race to challenger Dean Westlake. In that case the Democrats joined a Republican majority.
“To have three bail and put them in a majority, that’s an outrageous thing to do,” Babcock said.
The issue of caucuses came up in the primary election. At a debate at the Homer Public Library, Cox said he would not join a caucus. Wythe said she supported the Republican Party platform.
“A conservative party platform is how we will behave in Juneau,” she said. “It becomes difficult to be sure for you as a voter that you are being represented.”
Seaton made the point then that a caucus commits its members to two things: voting together on procedural issues and on the budget. In return, caucus members get key committee assignments.
The new bipartisan caucus had its roots in the last Legislature, when Seaton and some other Republicans balked at voting to tap the Constitutional Budget Reserve, the state’s saving account made up of prior budget surpluses when oil revenues were high. That group came to be known as the Musk Ox Coalition, a reference to the Arctic animal known for drawing into a circle with horns out to protect the herd.
“We all thought that was very fiscally imprudent,” Seaton said of attempts to draw down the reserve. “That’s where the group came around and said, Nope, we’re not going to do this to Alaskans.”
Seaton said he might have joined a Republican majority caucus if they were willing to coalesce around a sustainable fiscal plan, but they weren’t.
Looking ahead to the first session of the 30th Legislature, Seaton said the bipartisan caucus will work together on some fiscal plan that might borrow elements of his House Bill 365, which included a state income tax that is 15 percent of the federal income tax owed. If an Alaskan owed $10,000 in federal taxes, for example, the state tax bill would be $1,500. Seaton said he favored one bill rather than the multi-bill approach Gov. Bill Walker proposed.
“The exact elements and the exact ratios of those things are up for consideration by the committees it will go through,” Seaton said.
Passing something is critical, Seaton said. The state has one more year to borrow from budget reserves and then that savings account is gone. Other Republicans favor massive cuts in the budget — the only way to balance the budget without new revenues.
“That would throw the economy into a tailspin,” Seaton said.
Alaska has to move ahead from an oil revenue based budget, he said. That’s the approach of the bipartisan caucus.
“We thought that every other state in the union has figured out how to do a budget without having a massive oil tax be your sole source of revenue, and we could do that, too,” Seaton said.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.