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House panel approves committee changes

Posted: January 23, 2014 - 12:16am

JUNEAU — Alaska House lawmakers approved some committee changes Wednesday following Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula’s decision to resign from the Legislature.

But in the state Senate, a refusal by majority Republicans to allow for some Democratic reshuffling following a change in minority leadership created partisan friction.

In the House, Kerttula, D-Juneau, stepped down as minority leader Tuesday and said she planned to resign from the Legislature on Friday for a fellowship at Stanford University. Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, took over for Kerttula as minority leader, and Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, replaced him as whip.

Her departure leaves nine minority members until an appointed successor is chosen, below the threshold of 10 needed to constitute a formal minority for committee assignments. House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, assured minority members that there would be no overhaul of committee makeup pending the appointment.

On Wednesday, the House Committee on Committees met briefly to approve a request by minority Democrats to have Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, replace Tuck on House Resources.

It was announced Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, would replace Tuck on the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics and Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, would be the alternate.

Tuck will serve on the House Committee on Committees.

On the Senate side, Minority Leader Hollis French, in a floor speech, called the majority’s rejection of proposed committee changes a troubling decision that doesn’t foster good will in the opening days of the legislative session.

In a change that had been previously announced, French, D-Anchorage, replaced Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, as minority leader this session.

The minority requested that, given French’s new leadership role, Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, replace French on the Senate Resources Committee. French, in turn, proposed taking Wielechowski’s seat on Senate State Affairs.

But Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said he didn’t expect that to happen.

“I think we’re happy with the way the committees are made up,” he said, adding later, “I think we’re going to keep it the same.”

Coghill said the situation in the Senate is a little different than in the House since a member there is actually leaving the Legislature. “So that’s a very different dynamic that what we’ve got,” he said in an interview.

French said he felt compelled to speak out on the Senate floor.

Wielechowski said not allowing for the swap amounted to “petty partisanship.” He said situations like this were treated as “housekeeping matters” in the past.

He noted that when he was chairman of Senate State Affairs and a majority member asked to step off the panel, he agreed to a minority request to have a member put on the committee as a replacement. He said his view was that different voices make for a healthier debate.

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