Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, was picked late Thursday by the Alaska House Republican Majority to assume a seat on the powerful House Finance Committee left vacant earlier last week when Rep. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, was appointed to the Alaska Senate by Gov. Frank Murkowski.
It was Murkowski's moves naming Sen. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, to his staff as fisheries policy adviser and elevating Stevens to Austerman's Senate seat that eventually presented the House Majority with the job of filling the empty Finance Committee position. The House Majority Caucus chose Chenault, now in his second term, by secret ballot.
"The caucus was sensitive, not only to experience but geographical region that Rep. Chenault represents," House Speaker Pete Kott said in a press release Thursday night. "That's been pretty much the way the House Republican Caucus has demonstrated its ability to ensure that there's equal representation around the state."
Chenault said the decision to include a peninsula representative on the influential Finance Committee was the right one, and added that he was excited by the prospect.
"I have sought the position since being elected," Chenault said. "I think it shows the Majority Caucus agrees that regional representation of Finance and on other committees is important to the caucus."
But his new assignment comes with a cost. Chenault must vacate his position as co-chair of the House Resources Committee, where he was expected to have direct influence on legislation dealing with some of his prime campaign issues, including a future natural gas pipeline to the Kenai Peninsula and speeding up the state's resource development permitting procedures.
Chenault said, however, that his move to Finance shouldn't diminish his influence on resource issues.
"No, I don't think it does. In fact, it will help a bit," he said.
Bills that include fiscal notes -- an actual cost of implementation -- are funneled through the Finance Committee, he said. In part, that's what makes the Finance Committee so influential. It also makes it a time-consuming job, he said.
As a result, not only will Chenault lose his co-chairmanship of House Resources, he'll also give up seats on the House Special Committee on Oil and Gas, the House Rules Committee and the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee.
"It was a tough decision to move out of Resources, something I'm fairly comfortable with," Chenault said. "Even though I'll miss being involved (there), it was more important to have someone from the peninsula on Finance to not only look after the state's interests but the interests of the local constituents."
The House Majority Caucus selected from a field of four nominees that also included District 18 Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom, R-Eagle River, District 24 Rep. Cheryll Heinze, R-Anchorage, and District 29 Rep. Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage.
Chenault said he now has to move his office into the Finance Committee office vacated by Stevens. It is smaller than the one he has occupied, but his current office is assigned to the House Resources Committee.
Murkowski has yet to name a replacement for Stevens as representative, but he is seeking suggestions from Kodiak Republicans.
Although Stevens was only in his second term, his appointment to the Senate cuts further into the collective experience level of the House, which was significantly reduced when some longtime House members declined to seek re-election, were defeated at the polls or ran for the Alaska Senate instead.
The House now has 15 freshmen, 12 of them Republicans, and five second-term lawmakers among its 40 members.
Kott said the relative lack of experience was somewhat a matter of perception. Fifteen Republican members (now 14 with the departure of Stevens) have at least one term in office, he said. More than that, he added, those new to the Legislature are not necessarily new to politics and have a wealth of life experiences from which to draw.
"The House is in fairly good shape," he said.
Members quickly garner what they need to become more effective, he said.
"It doesn't take a genius to figure out the system," he said.
Kott said Stevens would be missed, and his replacement will have "some tough shoes to fill."
He also said Chenault had earned the trust and respect of his Republican colleagues.
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