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Harris weighs future after session

Contentious political season, demands of time, low pay take toll on House speaker

Posted: Monday, May 30, 2005

Web posted

JUNEAU - John Harris' first year as speaker of Alaska's House of Representatives started with a short-lived leadership coup and ended in the cross-hairs in the fight over two labor bills.

The time in between was no less tumultuous for the Valdez Republican. He had to keep together a Republican caucus cracked by the November coup, in which a coalition of Democrats and Republicans wrested the majority leadership from Harris for a day before he took it back.

Once in session, Harris had to respond to Senate Republicans strong-arming their favorite bill through the Legislature and engage in a little strong-arming of his own to keep spending down in the budget.

Harris, showing the wear and strain brought on by this contentious political season, told The Associated Press in a recent interview that the battles, time and low pay of the Legislature have taken their toll.

But has it changed his outlook on his political future?

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"Oh, no, no. I mean, maybe, a little bit," Harris said.

Harris, 47, is a seven-year veteran lawmaker who says he has started to consider his future in the Legislature. He missed his son's birthday last weekend. He is a newlywed, too, which has changed his priorities.

"There's that, you know, and you start saying, 'Is this what I want to do?"' Harris said.

"My wife and I are going to talk about it, determine whether or not we want to put the effort into another campaign - because I think I have a pretty reasonable shot, if the Republicans maintain the majority in the House, to be speaker again," he said. "If that's the case then, you know, I would be in the speakership for a (few more) years, and a lot of responsibility goes with that, and a lot of time."

Harris is a Teamster who supports and is supported by labor. That put him at the center of this session's fight over proposed changes to the state's workers' compensation laws and retirement systems.

Senate Republicans and Gov. Frank Murkowski supported both measures as ways to freeze, lower or make predictable the costs to employers. Murkowski and Senate leaders pushed hard for the House to pass them.

Labor unions fought vehemently against passage of both bills, saying both measures would harm Alaska workers: in the workers' comp bill, by making it more difficult for injured workers to receive benefits; and in the retirement bill, by making employees' and teachers' pensions dependent on the financial markets.

Senate Republicans refused to send a capital budget to the House and briefly shut down the Senate when it appeared the retirement bill wasn't going anywhere in a House committee. Murkowski pressured the House by threatening to veto the capital budget if the two bills weren't passed.

Meanwhile, labor union lobbyists were applying pressure of their own, warning House members that the bills' effects on workers would be dire.

"I'm a labor-supporting Republican," Harris said. "This has put me in a real box trying to figure out what to do, to try to get our caucus out of here, to try and adjourn the session and deal with folks who seem to be very anti-labor on the other side."

The House on several occasions either rejected the bills or passed versions that gutted the Senate's plans. But with the Senate Republicans and Murkowski insisting on the original proposals, the deadlock extended into a special session, and the House ended up passing compromise bills that kept the Senate's measures pretty much intact.

Harris voted for both measures. The workers' comp bill, he said, had improved after two conference committees' revisions.

He was the deciding vote on the retirement bill. He said he still had serious reservations about the bill, and its possible effects on private construction companies, but had to respect the will of the majority of his caucus.

Asked if he worries that his votes on the retirement and workers' comp bills will hurt his relationship with labor unions and his chances for re-election in 2006, Harris said: "No. I don't worry about it at all."

But he turned the questioning around, asking reporters if they thought Alaskans would vote against the lawmakers who voted for the bills, particularly retirement.

If labor unions told their members Republican legislators were about to take away their retirement systems, he asked, would they believe it?

"Would you be willing to look into it, or would you just take their word for it?" Harris said.

Partially answering his own question, Harris said many union members will vote the union line on candidate recommendations, but there are always members who consider other issues more important and will break with the union in picking a candidate to support.

The challenge in his district would not be from a lack of union support, he said, but if a strong Republican candidate runs against him.



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