House, Senate choose leaders

Posted: Friday, November 10, 2000

JUNEAU -- Lawmakers huddled Thursday to pick leaders for the new Alaska Legislature, but no announcements emerged from closed-door meetings.

The Republican House majority scheduled a news conference for Friday afternoon to announce the new House Speaker, majority leader and committee assignments. Rep. Brian Porter of Anchorage was expected to assume the speaker's chair for a second term, but other leadership roles were less certain.

The Senate's GOP majority, however, was working through an internal conflict. Even before Tuesday's election, three senators were seeking the Senate's top slot -- Pete Kelly of Fairbanks, Rick Halford of Chugiak and Loren Leman of Anchorage.

Thursday's meetings were held at undisclosed locations, with minority Democrats and even Senate staffers kept in the dark.

The 14 Republicans left in the 20-member Senate were split into two major groups. Electing a president and committee chairmen takes 11 votes.

One group, led by Halford, a former Senate president, includes conservatives Robin Taylor of Wrangell, Jerry Ward of Anchorage, Lyda Green of Palmer, Dave Donley of Anchorage and newly elected John Cowdery, also from Anchorage.

The second group was aligned with Kelly and included Gary Wilken of Fairbanks, current Senate President Drue Pearce, John Torgerson of Kasilof and two freshly elected senators, Gene Therriault of North Pole and Alan Austerman of Kodiak.

Leman and Randy Phillips, R-Anchorage, began the process unaligned with either camp. Neither group is large enough to organize the Senate without help. That means one side or another will have to either lure away members of the other faction or seek help from the Democrats.

Ellis said he had not been approached about a bipartisan coalition.

''They're Republicans and they always try and sit down together at least to work it out among themselves,'' Ellis said.

The results of the only close election in the Senate this year could have a bearing on the organization. Democrat Bettye Davis leads Republican Terry Martin 6,168 to 5,849 in the race for District K in Anchorage.

If Martin comes back to win after the absentee vote is counted, he would likely be a vote in Halford's camp. But if Davis holds on, the Democratic minority would increase to six, further complicating the task of organizing the majority.

That's because Democrats would get more seats on the Senate's committees under the Legislature's rules, including the coveted Finance Committee. For the past two sessions, Democrats have been relegated to one seat on each committee. A smaller majority would also prevent the Republicans from changing the Senate's rules to lure reluctant members because changing the rules requires a three-quarter vote.

In 1999, the GOP majority used that supermajority to expand the Finance Committee from seven members to nine without giving the Democrats another seat. That allowed more members of the majority to hold the much sought-after spots.

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