The state government of Alaska was anything but dull in 2012, with eleventh-hour drama in the Legislature derailing an oil tax reform push, control of the State Senate shifting dramatically to the Republican Party, and legislative redistricting scrambling district lines.
Redistricting, a process that occurs every decade to bring the population of legislative districts to rough parity, was one roller coaster of a story that set the stage for others.
The Alaska Supreme Court directed the Alaska Redistricting Board to produce a map that drew Haines and part of Juneau into the same district, setting up a potential incumbent-versus-incumbent Republican primary between Reps. Cathy Muñoz of Juneau, and Bill Thomas of Haines. But in a dramatic about-face, the Supreme Court decided on May 22 that it preferred an earlier map, leaving neither Muñoz nor fellow Juneau legislator Rep. Beth Kerttula, the Democratic minority leader, with an obvious primary opponent. Indeed, neither faced a challenge in either the primary or the general election.
The redistricting map remained a point of legal controversy throughout the year, and on Dec. 30, the Supreme Court ordered that it be redrawn once again for the 2014 election.
Redistricting also placed Sens. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, and Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, into the same Senate district and put Reps. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan, and Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, into the same House district, as Southeast Alaska lost a Senate seat and a House seat. Stedman and Wilson won their respective incumbent-versus-incumbent matchups.
Aided by the effects of redistricting elsewhere in the state, Republicans stormed from a 10-10 tie in the Senate to a 13-7 majority in the Nov. 6 election. The leader of the four-person Republican minority became the incoming leader of a 15-person Senate majority.
The change in Senate control made big news in Juneau when Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, decided to cross over to the new majority on Nov. 9. Egan said he was reluctant to join the Republican-dominated caucus, but argued that as a member of the majority, he would wield more influence for Juneau and the Southeast region.
While Democrats took a beating in the election, they had a welcome surprise in Thomas’ Southeast House district, where 23-year-old Sitka Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins defeated the Republican incumbent by just 32 votes. Thomas requested a recount, which confirmed Kreiss-Tomkins’ victory on Dec. 3 — the last race of the election to be called.
The general election was not the only contest that resonated in state politics in 2012.
Ballot Measure 2, a proposition to create a coastal management program a year after the old program expired, attracted strong support from Kerttula and Juneau’s then-mayor, Bruce Botelho. But Kerttula and Botelho would be disappointed. Voters statewide overwhelmingly rejected Measure 2 in the primary election on Aug. 28, although a majority of Juneau voters weighed in favor of the initiative.
Some in 2012 were already eyeing the next general election, in 2014.
Republican Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell made news when he announced in Fairbanks on Nov. 30 that he was forming an exploratory committee to consider a challenge to Sen. Mark Begich, Alaska’s Democratic senator, who is up for reelection in 2014. Treadwell made his announcement even as his boss, Gov. Sean Parnell, has maintained publicly that he has not decided whether to run for the United States Senate in 2014, when his own term as governor will be up.
The Juneau Empire reported on Dec. 4 that Treadwell said he could switch races if Parnell decides to try for Senate, running for a promotion to governor instead of a seat in the Senate. Treadwell said he had “no interest” in running against Parnell in a primary.
Parnell himself made national news on July 17 when he joined the ranks of Republican governors who have said they will use the “opt-out” privilege in the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, declining to have Alaska develop a health insurance exchange and leaving the task to the federal government.
Parnell’s announcement that Alaska would not create its own exchange came less than a month after he said Alaska will implement the legislation, while making it clear that he remains personally opposed to the law, after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality in a landmark decision on June 28. The ruling, and Parnell’s response to it, also made top news in 2012.
One of the most dramatic moments of the year in state government came on the evening of April 25, when Parnell’s office issued a proclamation withdrawing a bill on oil tax reform from the special legislative session after facing opposition from both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate. Many legislators and commentators had criticized Parnell and Department of Revenue Commissioner Bryan Butcher over the bill, saying they failed to make their case as to how the proposed reforms would increase oil production in the state.
The Parnell administration also made news on an issue closer to home in Southeast Alaska late in the year, when Parnell proposed ordering two smaller ferries for the Alaska Marine Highway System instead of the one large ferry that had been planned.
Two days before being appointed commissioner of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, then-Acting Commissioner Pat Kemp spoke about the proposal at a Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Dec. 22. Kemp said the state hopes to have the ferries, which would serve Juneau, Haines and Skagway along Lynn Canal, built in Ketchikan for a reasonable price.