One in, one out

Peninsula senators divided over Legislature’s bipartisan coalition

Posted: Thursday, November 23, 2006

Slamming the new bipartisan Senate coalition announced late last week, Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, said Monday that its five GOP members had abandoned the possibility of an all-Republican, majority-led organization for personal power.

The Kenai Peninsula’s other Senate member, Majority Leader Gary Stevens, who is a part of that alliance, called the new mixed majority a solid group that will survive the next two years while moving “toward the center,” and leaving extreme conservatives and liberals at the political margins.

“I’m not in it,” Wagoner said. “There are 11 Republicans in the Senate. They (coalition members) refused to sit down with other Republicans and discuss an organization. It’s all about individual wants and needs and egos.”

The Nov. 7 general election narrowed the GOP majority in the Alaska Senate to just one vote — 11 Republicans versus nine Democrats. Friday, four-term Senate member Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, announced the formation of a coalition of five Republicans and eight Democrats, that included Stevens, whose Senate District R covers portions of the lower and eastern Kenai Peninsula.

“The coalition has given them what they wanted without sharing any part of leadership or organization with other Republicans, and we’ve been colleagues for four to six years,” Wagoner said.

Green has been named Senate President, while Stevens will continue as Majority Leader. Cowdery has been named chair of the Senate Rules Committee.

The resulting alliance, however, has already given and is expected to give Democrats committee leadership roles that might otherwise have gone to Republicans, Wagoner said.

The coalition’s genesis began with efforts by the minority last spring at the end of the regular session, Wagoner said, adding that he was among the first approached to join, at one point being offered chair of the Senate Resources Committee. He declined a coalition position because “I was not ready to go there.”

His party is partly to blame for this latest development, Wagoner said, because during the last Legislature, the Republican caucus was “one of the most dysfunctional ever.”

Republican coalition members could have met with others in the majority party to discuss and possibly resolve differences within the caucus before forming a bipartisan coalition. They chose not to, Wagoner said.

It was different the last time Republicans organized to run the Senate. When seven votes handed the Senate presidency to Ben Stevens in 2004, the five Republicans voting otherwise “did not bolt and run” to form a coalition with Democrats, but instead closed ranks with their party, Wagoner said.

“For Republicans (now) to form a coalition and turn over committees (to Democrats) after not even discussing it with us is disingenuous,” he said. “The only way to solve problems is to meet face to face and have discussions.”

He also said that he believes Sen. Green knew there could be six votes to elect Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, as president, leading her to the preemptive move of forming a coalition that guaranteed her the Senate’s top job.

Stevens confirmed that.

“The truth is that out of 11 Republicans there were a very strong split between Gene and Lyda. It became clear that we would not find a compromise,” Stevens said. “In this case, Lyda went outside the party to bring in minority members. That’s not unheard of.”

The Republican outs asked for a party sit-down Monday in a letter to Stevens, who said the members did meet to discuss the issues. Apparently, little changed.

“At this point I can say this coalition is solidly there and will continue through the next two years,” Stevens said. He predicted that more extreme political agendas “may not find the support they have found in the past.”

Barring a change of heart or a breakup among coalition members, Wagoner said he would remain apart from the coalition, but would continue to work on legislation and issues important to the Kenai Peninsula. He said he would work closely with Alaska House members Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna, who he said were in good positions in the House.

Stevens called the coalition “all very interesting” and something he had never been through before. “I’m not sure how it is going to work,” he acknowledged.

As for representing the lower Kenai Peninsula, he said being in the new coalition majority shouldn’t be tangibly different from being in an all-Republican majority insofar as peninsula issues are concerned.

“There will be no loss of representation,” he said.

The prime issue on which the coalition will concentrate will be a gas pipeline contract, he said. Behind that will be an effort to fix problems with the education area cost differential and reestablishing some form of municipal revenue sharing.

Members of the coalition, however, are likely to differ over social issues, just as lawmakers are struggling now with the problems posed by Alaska Supreme Court’s order to start providing public employees in gay or lesbian relationships with the equivalent of spousal benefits now enjoyed by married couples.

For instance, bills proposing increasing spending for social programs could face problems getting a coalition consensus, Stevens said.

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