Illness, injury keep House Majority short of votes to advance key legislation

Fast-track budget bill to keep ferry system operating is among stalled bills

The desk of Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, is seen vacant Monday, March 5, 2018. Spohnholz said she had been diagnosed with complications from a pulmonary embolism and will be absent from the capitol until Monday. (James Brooks | Juneau Empire)

Alaskans angry about the pace of the Alaska Legislature this year may focus their ire on a new target: The flu.

 

On Monday, the Alaska House of Representatives again delayed a vote on the fast-track budget bill intended to keep the Alaska Marine Highway System operating past April 16. The bill, House Bill 321, was expected to pass the House a week ago and proceed to the Senate. Senators were so confident in its passage that they scheduled hearings of the Senate Finance Committee to consider it. The bill never came up, and the hearings were canceled.

When Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, learned in a Monday morning caucus meeting that the budget bill would be again delayed, possibly until Friday, he had a simple question.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because we can count,” replied House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage.

In the House, most business needs 21 members: a simple majority of the 40 people in the body.

Since 2016, Democrats, independents and Republicans have created a coalition majority of 22 members. In December, Dean Westlake resigned from the seat representing the North Slope and Northwest Arctic Borough.

Rep. John Lincoln, D-Kotzebue, was appointed to replace him, but in the week Lincoln arrived, Zach Fansler resigned from the seat representing Bethel and portions of Southwest Alaska.

Both Westlake and Fansler were Democrats and members of the coalition majority. Their resignations (and the process of replacing them) has meant that for the first two months of the Legislative session, the coalition majority has had only 21 members, the bare majority needed to pass legislation.

Having a bare majority means there’s no room for anyone to miss a vote for a quick trip back to the home district, or for a sick day. If someone gets sick, that drops the majority to 20 members. In that case, lawmakers would need to compromise with the Republican House minority to get the needed 21 votes, and any compromise increases the chance of a bill that is unacceptable to one or more members of the majority, costing votes rather than earning them.

There have been a lot of sick days this year. This winter has brought the worst influenza season in a decade, and the Legislature has been no more immune than the rest of the country.

On Monday, Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, was ill with the flu, as was Lincoln.

“We’re like walking wounded,” said Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, with a bit of exasperation.

Making matters worse for the coalition majority — and the pace of progress in the House — Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, was absent on Monday for an issue far more serious than the flu.

In messages posted on social media, she shared that she was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism and suffered medical complications. She is recovering in Anchorage and is absent from the Capitol until at least Monday.

Spohnholz did not respond to an interview request on Monday, but those familiar with the issue said she was diagnosed with the problem in Juneau and sought to fly back to Anchorage for treatment late last week. No seat was available on a scheduled commercial flight, so Spohnholz elected to take a chartered medevac to Anchorage.

“It was a situation that had to be taken seriously,” Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, told reporters Monday morning.

If Spohnholz is unable to return to Juneau quickly, it would extend the complications for the House’s coalition majority, which is expected to swear in Tiffany Zulkosky, Fansler’s replacement, on Friday.

In addition to the fast-track budget, Edgmon said “bills are beginning to stack up in the House Rules Committee,” which is in charge of scheduling legislation for floor debate.

Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage and chairwoman of the House Education Committee, suggested that the problems could ripple through the committee process as well. That committee was scheduled to consider a measure increasing the amount of money paid per student by the state to school districts across Alaska, but Spohnholz is a member of that committee, as was Fansler.

“We may not (consider it on Wednesday), because we’re down two members in House education,” she said in the majority’s Monday caucus meeting.

Josephson said in that meeting that the growing backlog may soon require the House to begin holding floor sessions on Saturdays to make up for the lost time. Tuck appeared open to that idea.

Assuming Spohnholz returns next week, Edgmon said Alaskans can expect the House to begin to move more quickly on legislation.

“There’s no question that having all the members here is going to make a bigger difference,” he said.


• Contact reporter James Brooks at jbrooks@juneauempire.com or call 523-2258.


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