Kodiak Republican Louise Stutes will lead the Alaska House of Representatives following a vote Thursday to make her Speaker of the House.
The 40-member body had been locked in a 20-20 stalemate since the start of the session. For 23 days, the split had been between 20 Republicans and 20 members of the House Coalition, which includes 15 Democrats, four independents and Stutes.
Eagle River Republican Kelly Merrick broke the deadlock by voting for Stutes, making the final vote count 21-19. Stutes will succeed Bryce Edgmon, an independent from Dillingham, who has been Speaker for the past two sessions. Utqiagvik independent Josiah Patkotak had been leading the House on a temporary basis.
“I want to thank you for the trust you put in me. I look forward to uniting this House of Representatives,” Stutes said in her first remarks to the House after taking the Speaker’s chair. “I am very excited to be instrumental in bringing this House back together.”
In a brief interview on Thursday, Stutes lauded Merrick for her vote.
“I think the strength of Kelly Merrick is what broke the deadlock,” she said.
Merrick, for her part, said in a press release that she was disappointed by the lack of action for the past weeks in the Legislature.
“I have been frustrated by taking the same fruitless votes day after day and I felt we could no longer afford to delay extending the governor’s emergency disaster declaration, crafting a fiscally conservative budget and passing the construction jobs bill,” she said.
She said Stutes’ Republican affiliation and history in the Legislature won her over.
“It was by no means an easy decision to make but it ensured that no matter how organization comes together, there will be a Republican Speaker,” Merrick said. “Speaker Stutes has served many years in the Legislature, has personal relationships with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and is committed to bringing people together to tackle issues facing Alaska.”
However, Merrick also said that her vote did not necessarily mean she would be joining the Coalition group.
Stutes said she would wait and see who would or would not join.
“We’re in the process of organizing, and you just don’t know what the future is going to bring,” Stutes said. “My hope is to bring the House together and move forward as one.”
The House will now form a committee on committees, which will decide what members end up on what committees. Stutes said she didn’t necessarily have a priority in mind once things are organized.
“I don’t know. You listen to your members and go whatever direction that they determine is a priority to the majority of them,” she said.
But she said she was ready to start tackling some Alaska’s looming problems.
“Good grief, we’ve got some big issues ahead of us,” she said. “We’ve got a deficit in our budget, oil revenues are just starting to go up, but we’ve spent our savings. We’ve got to trim our budget. We’ve got to maintain our services. We’ve got a lot on our plate.”
That’s on top of making a decision about whether or not to extend Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s emergency declaration. It’s set to expire on Feb. 14.
Dunleavy said on Wednesday that he would leave the matter up to the Legislature. Senate Bill 56, which would extend the declaration to March 15, passed out of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee this week. But no matter what the Senate does, the House can’t pass a bill until it is organized.
“I would imagine that would be one of the priorities,” Stutes said.
This is Stutes’ fourth term in the House after first being elected in 2014. She was elected without opposition in November. In her first House term, Stutes caucused with the Republican Party. But she’s sided with the Coalition in all three terms since.
“If you know me, you know that during my time in Juneau I’ve never lost sight of where I come from,” Stutes wrote in a December statement announcing her choice to join the Coalition again for this term. “Although a proud Republican for 50 years, I am first and foremost a representative of my district. After giving it careful thought, I’m making it public that I’ll be caucusing with my colleagues in the current House Majority Coalition who share my vision for a vibrant rural, as well as urban Alaska.”
Before joining the Legislature, Stutes served on the Kodiak Island Borough Assembly for 2006 to 2013.
Stutes will be the second Kodiak politician to lead a legislative chamber in recent memory. Kodiak’s Gary Stevens was Senate president from 2009 to 2012.
Andrew Kenneson can be reached at 907-486-3227.