Election changes face of legislative leadership

Posted: Thursday, November 07, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- There will be big changes in legislative leadership come January, as a result of Tuesday's election and recent retirements.

''It is, maybe, a new guard coming in,'' said Anchorage Republican Rep. Con Bunde, who is moving to the Senate.

Republicans maintained firm control of the Alaska Legislature in Tuesday's election. But 14 of the 40 members of the state House will be freshmen, and the 20-member Senate will have six new faces.

On Wednesday, the Republican majority in the state Senate started talks on who will take over the top leadership jobs. The top candidates for Senate president are believed to be Wrangell Sen. Robin Taylor and North Pole Sen. Gene Therriault, both of whom are conservatives. Taylor expects that there will be other contenders, as well.

The GOP majority in the state House starts its discussions Thursday on who should lead. House members say the battle for House speaker has boiled down to Eagle River Rep. Pete Kott and Valdez Rep. John Harris. Kott is generally considered to have the backing of more conservative lawmakers.

If the results of Tuesday's election hold steady through the count of questioned and absentee ballots, then the balance of party power in the House should be the same as in the last two years, when the Republican-led majority had a 28-12 advantage.

The Democrats had high hopes of picking up several more seats in the House. House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, believes the Democrats' lack of success in legislative races was partially an echo of the electoral enthusiasm for Republican U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, who was victorious in the governor's race by a commanding margin.

With the new makeup of the House and the success of Murkowski, Berkowitz said he doubted the House will work on filling the state budget gap with taxes or use of some Alaska Permanent Fund investment earnings. Last session the House passed such a plan, but it was stonewalled in the state Senate.

The state government's operating budget has been running several hundred million dollars in the red, and the main budget reserve account is projected to run dry in a few years.

During the governor's race, Murkowski rejected the idea of taxes or the use of fund earnings to tackle the gap. He called for aggressive resource development efforts as the main solution.

''That seems to be what the public wants,'' said Berkowitz, who does not believe it is realistic.

Many of the new House members also campaigned on a ''no taxes'' platform, which indicates that the House will take on a more conservative tone. On the other hand, neither of the top candidates for House speaker are ultra-conservatives.

Speaker candidate Kott said that ''personally I think there ought to be some kind of a broad based tax.'' And he believes there is interest in the House in crafting a fiscal plan.

The other main speaker candidate, Harris, could not be reached for comment. Like Kott, Harris opposed the income tax that passed the House last session but voted in favor of using some Permanent Fund earnings for education expenses.

In the Senate, the Democrats picked up a couple of seats on Tuesday but will likely be outgunned 12-8 by the GOP majority. Most significantly, though, some of the most entrenched Republican leaders of the Senate retired or lost their re-election bids.

Sen. Johnny Ellis, the Senate Democratic Minority Leader, said he believes it will be a ''more moderate and get-the-job-done Senate'' than in recent years. But Ellis does not expect the Senate will pursue taxes or use of fund earnings.

Wrangell Republican Sen. Taylor said Wednesday that taxes should not be on the table right now. Lawmakers will work with the new governor on resource development, he said.

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