Elton loses finance seat

Posted: Tuesday, January 09, 2001

A political setback suffered by Sen. Kim Elton on Monday probably won't hurt Juneau in its quest to get more state dollars, according to political observers. But some say it might make it tougher for Senate Democrats to expose weaknesses in the majority.

Senate Republicans blocked the Juneau Democrat from claiming a coveted seat on the Senate Finance Committee on Monday, even though Elton's colleagues in the minority unanimously supported him. Republicans instead chose Sen. Donald Olson, a freshman Democrat from Nome, for the powerful budget-writing panel.

"Sen. Olson represents the area where most of the money (spent by the Legislature) comes from," said Senate President Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican. "It is certainly not anything personal with regard to Senator Elton at all."

The GOP outnumbers Democrats in the Senate 14-6. Republicans have the power to choose which Democrats serve on committees, but generally the majority accepts the designees put forward by the minority. Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis told Halford during a hearing on the issue that Democrats were very upset and angry.

"We would not presume to tell the majority who to put on your committee assignments," said Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat.

The majority left the Democrats' other choice for the Finance Committee intact: Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Bethel Democrat, also will serve on the nine-member panel, which is dominated by seven Republicans.

Anchorage pollster and political consultant David Dittman said Elton's removal probably won't hurt Juneau because Democrats don't have much political muscle on the committee anyway.

"I don't think it would make much difference actually - he'd certainly have input, but when it came to voting, I don't think it would make much difference," said Dittman, of Dittman Research Corp. of Alaska.

"It doesn't have the same impact as (it would) if he was in the majority," said Clive Thomas, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Elton said he learned he was probably off the committee Saturday when he confronted Halford about a rumor that Republicans wanted a different Democrat on the panel.

"I'm disappointed," said Elton, who hoped to use the position to help secure state dollars for a new high school in Juneau. "It means for Juneau I'm going to be working on a different playing field. I think it makes it a little bit more difficult for the Juneau delegation, but I'll be working from a different vantage point."

Juneau Republican Rep. Bill Hudson said it's too soon to tell whether Elton's ouster will hurt Juneau, but he called the change a big loss.

"If he's not there, he won't be ... formulating the fiscal policies at the Finance Committee level," said Hudson, who won a seat on House Finance.

During a floor session Monday, Republican Sen. Pete Kelly defended the move, saying Southeast already has representation on the panel. Sen. Alan Austerman of Kodiak represents a sprawling district that includes some Southeast communities.

"It is not about partisanship or personality. It's not about politics. It is more than anything else about regionalism," said Kelly, of Fairbanks.

During the floor session, the minority pushed an amendment to replace Olson on Senate Finance with veteran Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, a Rampart Democrat. Olson himself voted in favor of Lincoln, but Republicans defeated the amendment.

Olson could have declined the nomination, but he later said Democrats were fearful the GOP might retaliate by limiting the minority to only one seat on the panel, instead of two, as it did in 1999.

"We were afraid ... we might go back to a situation that we had a couple years ago where we had a nine-member committee and only one of those came from the minority," Olson said.

Thomas, the political science professor, said Republicans might have favored Olson because he is a newcomer to the Capitol with a lot to learn. As an insider, Elton was better prepared than a freshman to expose the weaknesses of the majority, Thomas said.

Elton "certainly would have been a prominent voice on that committee - there's no doubt about that, which is probably why he's not on there now," Thomas said. "An inexperienced person has a learning curve which is pretty steep."

Elton's new committee assignments include seats on House Resources, Transportation and the Legislative Council. Elton said those committees would have been his second choice after the Finance Committee.

Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.

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