Five Alaska state senators, including Southeast Alaska Sens. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, and Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, released a joint statement Tuesday announcing the formation of a Senate Coastal Caucus.
Egan and Stedman are joining Sens. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak; Donny Olson, D-Golovin; and Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna to constitute the caucus.
Stedman said Alaska’s coastal senators have worked together in the past, but that this move makes that affiliation into a more formal organization within the Senate majority caucus, of which all five senators are members.
“Historically, there’s always been a group within the Senate, and we actually called ourselves the ‘Coastal Caucus,’ but this is a more formalized group with five members,” Stedman said.
While the districts in the caucus are diverse — much of the coastal area represented by Olson, whose vast district also includes sizable parts of the Interior, is ice-locked for part of the year, while Micciche’s district in Southcentral Alaska lies just outside the Anchorage metropolitan area — senators said they share many common issues as coastal legislators.
“Coastal areas have unique issues, problems and opportunities,” Micciche said. “One of the things that we find is that the Alaska public really likes to visit us in the summer and temporarily enjoy some very expensive infrastructure and ports and harbors, and those things are expensive to maintain. And we just want to make sure that, as things tighten up in the future, that we have the funding necessary to be able to keep those state assets in good condition.”
Micciche, who is a commercial fisherman, also said the group will be able to advocate for the commercial fishing industry, which is common to the five districts. Egan and Stedman mentioned energy, harbors and transportation as issues different in coastal Alaska from the rest of the state as well.
The caucus will serve as something of an analog to the bipartisan Bush Caucus in the House, which brings together representatives from Southeast and other rural areas.
Juneau Republican Rep. Cathy Muñoz, a member of the Bush Caucus, said that group has taken on a coastal flavor.
“We’ve kind of called ourselves the ‘Bush-Coastal Caucus’ lately,” said Muñoz.
“There’s still lots of overlap on the issues,” House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, added.
Stedman said the formalization of the Coastal Caucus was spurred by last year’s redistricting, which caused Southeast to lose a senator and representative.
“I think that there’s, after the redistricting, there’s been more concentration of the electoral power in the Railbelt region, and it’s evident in the building here today,” Stedman said.
According to Egan, Stedman has been named the leader of the five-senator caucus.
All five senators are members of the Senate majority caucus. A sixth coastal senator, Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, who caucuses with the Senate minority, was not invited to participate.
Egan and Stedman both said they hope the caucus is able to influence the majority caucus by representing coastal issues.
“We’re still proud members of the (majority) caucus, but we have issues that are directly affecting coastal communities that these people need some attention on,” said Egan. “And the reason why, the main reason, we did it is number one, education about our coastal issues and making sure we have a voice in a lot of discussions going forward on issues … that’s not necessarily on their radar.”
Having one-quarter of the Senate and one-third of the 15-member Senate majority in the group gives the Coastal Caucus some numerical heft.
“I think going forward, you’ll see a tighter, cohesive working relationship with the coastal and rural legislators,” Stedman predicted. He added, “The caucus as a group, the majority as a group, would come out with broader, more comprehensive policies that affect and raise all Alaskans’ standard of living.”
While four of the five senators — Micciche being the exception — voted together with minority Democrats against Senate Bill 21, Republican Gov. Sean Parnell’s proposal to reform Alaska’s oil tax production system, Egan said the caucus is not about oil taxes.
“This caucus wasn’t born because of Senate Bill 21,” Egan said. “I mean, this has been brewing for a while.”
“It’s the geography that’s bringing us together,” said Stedman. “We’re not going to agree on every subject matter … but there’s a lot of things we can agree on.”
“The reality of it is, we’re often more in line geographically … than the importance of the party,” Micciche said. “What I like about this is that it’s a mixed group of folks that are going to be looking for solutions for Alaskans regardless of the letter next to their names.”
But coastal legislators tend to be more centrist than many legislators from elsewhere in the state, Muñoz suggested.
“I think that the representatives (of) coastal communities tend to represent areas that are very bipartisan,” said Muñoz. “I don’t want to say that one is better than the other, but they’re moderate. They tend to represent moderate population, political constituencies.”
Egan and Kerttula said they expect dialogue between the Bush Caucus and the new Coastal Caucus, noting the Juneau delegation itself meets fairly regularly already.
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at email@example.com.