Stories about Alaska

Alaska legislature confirms Treg Taylor as attorney general

A joint session of the Alaska Legislature voted 35-24 to confirm Treg Taylor as the state’s attorney general on May 11. Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) appointed Taylor as acting attorney general on Jan. 29 after Ed Sniffen resigned following allegations of sexual misconduct. 

Before Dunleavy appointed Taylor attorney general, Taylor served as deputy attorney general in charge of the civil division at the Alaska Department of Law. In 2016, he ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Anchorage Municipal Assembly.

The two previous attorneys general of Alaska both resigned due to allegations of misconduct. Kevin Clarkson resigned after an investigation revealed that he had sent inappropriate text messages to a junior employee. Sniffen resigned after a former member of a high school mock trial team coached by Sniffen alleged that she and Sniffen had a sexual relationship when she was 17 years old.

The attorney general is a state executive office in all 50 states and is the chief legal advisor for state government. Attorneys general are empowered to prosecute violations of state law, represent the state in legal disputes, and issue legal advice to state agencies and the legislature. 

Nationwide, 26 states have Republican Party-affiliated attorneys general, and 24 states have Democratic Party-affiliated attorneys general. Virginia is the only state electing its attorney general this year. Thirty states will elect an attorney general in 2022.

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Anchorage mayoral race remains uncertain as ballots continue to be counted

The outcome of the Anchorage, Alaska, mayoral election remains unclear after preliminary results posted by the city showed Forrest Dunbar leading Dave Bronson with 50.8% of the vote. As of the posting, at least 6,600 ballots had not yet been counted, and mail-in ballots continued to arrive. Mail-in ballots postmarked no later than election day, May 11, will continue to be counted if they arrive by May 21. Overseas ballots must arrive by May 25.

Based on the over 78,000 ballots received so far, the voter turnout rate is at 30.5% of registered voters and already exceeds the 75,441 votes cast in the April 6 general election. The city’s highest recorded voter turnout was in the 2018 mayoral election in which 36.3% of registered voters cast 79,295 votes. If the race remains within the current margins, the city will conduct a recount. The candidates are currently separated by 0.16% of the vote, and Anchorage municipal code stipulates that an automatic recount be conducted for city elections in which a candidate wins by less than 0.5%.

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Alaska ends coronavirus state of emergency for second time

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) lifted the state’s coronavirus emergency order on April 30. Dunleavy’s emergency powers originally expired Feb. 14, causing his emergency declaration to end. But the emergency order’s expiration prevented the state from accessing an additional $8 million of federal food assistance benefits for April.

In response, the legislature passed House Bill 76, and Dunleavy signed the legislation on April 30. The bill retroactively extended the disaster emergency from Feb. 14 through the end of 2021. The retroactive extension allowed the state to access the federal food assistance benefits. 

The bill also allowed Department of Health and Social Services Director Adam Crump to issue a limited disaster emergency order April 30 to secure future federal assistance. After Gov. Dunleavy signed the legislation and Crump signed the limited order, the governor re-ended the state’s emergency order, effective April 30.

HB 76 passed the state Senate April 28. The state House approved the legislation April 29. The new law also enacts legal immunity for businesses against claims related to COVID-19.

Anchorage, Alaska local ballot measure recap

Unofficial election results indicate that voters in Anchorage, Alaska approved nine measures and defeated two measures on April 6.

Anchorage voters defeated Proposition 1, a $6.9 million bond measure for construction and renovation of local facilities, with 53% against and 46% in favor.

Proposition 2 was approved with 54% of the vote. Proposition 2 authorized the city to issue $1.15 million in bonds to fund renovations for the Anchorage Senior Activity Center, Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center, and Loussac Library.

Proposition 3 was approved with 53% of the vote. It allows the city to issue $5.3 million in bonds for transportation projects.

Proposition 4 was approved with 54% of the vote. The measure authorized an increase in the municipal tax cap, not exceeding $5.32 per $100,000 in assessed value, thereby generating an estimated $1.8 million annually. The revenue will be used to purchase for the Anchorage Police Department computer-aided dispatch, record-management, and digital-evidence management systems, in-car and body-worn cameras, and related technologies and services.

Proposition 5 was approved with 57% of the vote. It authorized $36.425 million in bonds to fund roads and storm drainage capital acquisition and renovation of related capital improvements in the Anchorage Roads and Drainage Service Area.

Proposition 6 was approved with 54% of the vote. The measure authorized the city to issue $4 million in bonds to fund parks and recreational services.

Proposition 7 was approved with 60% of the vote. The measure authorized the city to issue $1.95 million in bonds to fund acquiring a replacement fire ladder truck and making AFD facility improvements and related capital improvements in the Anchorage Fire Service Area.

Proposition 8 was defeated by a vote of 48% in favor to 52% against. The measure would have authorized the city to issue $3.9 million in bonds to fund acquiring new APD replacement fleet vehicles and related capital improvements in the Anchorage Metropolitan Police Service Area.

Proposition 9 was approved with 55% of the vote. The measure authorized the city to annex select areas in the Blue Beary Estates Subdivision to the Bear Valley Limited Road Service Area.

Proposition 10 was approved with 66% of the vote. It was designed to de-annex Alpine Terrace Subdivision Block 2, Lot 6 from the Upper O’Malley Limited Road Service Area.

Proposition 11 was approved with 57% of the vote. The measure de-annexes Creekview Estates Subdivision, Lots 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 from the South Goldenview Rural Road Service Area.

Between 2017 and 2020, there were 29 bond issues on the ballot in Anchorage. Of those, 26 were approved.

Anchorage mayoral race remains undecided

Preliminary results from Anchorage’s April 6 mayoral election show Dave Bronson and Forrest Dunbar in the lead. As of 4:30 p.m. Alaska Time on April 7, Dunbar had 33% of the vote and Bronson had 32%. A candidate needs 45% of the vote to win election as mayor. If no candidate receives 45% of the vote, the top two finishers will advance to a May 11 runoff.

The city will continue to accept mail-in ballots from local voters through April 16 and from overseas voters through April 20, although only ballots postmarked by April 6 will be accepted. Deputy Municipal Clerk Erika McConnell said that it will take time to process the large volume of ballots.  

Fifteen candidates were on the ballot. Media attention focused on six: Bronson,  Dunbar, Bill Evans, Bill Falsey, George Martinez, and Mike Robbins. These candidates also led in endorsements and fundraising. Anna Anthony, Jeffrey T. Brown, Darin Colbry, Heather Herndon, Jacob Kern, Reza Momin, Albert Swank Jr., Jacob Versteeg, and Joe Westfall also ran.

Economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic was a central issue in the race. Dunbar and Falsey said they support maintaining safety measures enacted by the Anchorage Assembly, such as a mask mandate and business restrictions, while Bronson, Evans, and Robbins said they supported reconsidering or removing restrictions. Homelessness and crime were also topics of debate, with candidates divided over homelessness prevention methods as well as shelter funding and locations.

Austin Quinn-Davidson, the current mayor, did not run for a full term. Quinn-Davidson became acting mayor after Ethan Berkowitz (D) resigned from office on October 23, 2020, due to what he described as “unacceptable personal conduct that has compromised my ability to perform my duties with the focus and trust that is required.”

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Mayoral election in Anchorage, Alaska to be held April 6

The city of Anchorage, Alaska, is holding a nonpartisan general election for mayor on April 6. Fourteen candidates are running. Media attention has been focused on six candidates: David Bronson, Forrest Dunbar, Bill Evans, Bill Falsey, George Martinez, and Mike Robbins. These candidates also lead in endorsements and fundraising. Heather Herndon, Jacob Versteeg, Joe Westfall, Albert Swank, Reza Momin, Anna Anthony, Darin Colbry, and Jacob Seth Kern are also running.

Incumbent Ethan Berkowitz (D) resigned from office on Oct. 23, 2020, due to what he said was “unacceptable personal conduct that has compromised my ability to perform my duties with the focus and trust that is required.” The Anchorage Assembly selected Austin Quinn-Davidson to serve as acting mayor.

Economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is a central issue in the race. Dunbar and Falsey said they support maintaining safety measures enacted by the Anchorage Assembly, such as a mask mandate and business restrictions, while Bronson, Evans, and Robbins said that they support reconsidering or removing restrictions. Homelessness and crime is also a key topic, with candidates divided over shelter funding and locations and prevention methods.

To be elected mayor, a candidate needs to win at least 45% of the vote. If no candidate wins 45% of the vote on April 6, the two candidates with the most votes will compete in a runoff election held on May 11.

The city government of Anchorage combines a council-manager system with a strong mayor system. The city council serves as the city’s primary legislative body and the mayor serves as the chief executive of the city. The mayor is responsible for proposing a budget, signing legislation into law, appointing departmental directors, and overseeing the city’s day-to-day operations. The mayor also represents the city on the state, national and international levels.

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Who funded the campaigns for and against ranked-choice voting ballot measures in 2020?

Voters in Alaska and Massachusetts decided statewide ranked-choice voting ballot measures in 2020. Alaskans approved an initiated statute to replace partisan primaries with open top-four primaries and establish ranked-choice voting for general elections, including the presidential election. Voters in Massachusetts rejected an initiative to adopt ranked-choice voting statewide.  

The top-two donors to the campaigns behind the ballot initiatives were the non-profit organizations Action Now Initiative and Unite America. Action Now Initiative was a top donor to ranked-choice voting measures in previous years, such as Maine Question 5 (2016) and New York City Question 1 (2019). Unite America also contributed to campaigns in prior years but did not break into the lists of top-five largest donors. In 2020, Unite America was the largest donor to Alaskans for Better Elections and the third-largest donor to Voter Choice Massachusetts.

The Action Now Initiative provided $6.59 million to the statewide ranked-choice voting campaigns in 2020, including $2.93 million in Alaska and $3.66 million in Massachusetts. John and Laura Arnold founded the Action Now Initiative as a 501(c)(4) organization in Huston, Texas, in 2011. Besides ranked-choice voting ballot measures, the Action Now Initiative has supported ballot initiatives related to redistricting commissions and criminal justice changes.

Unite America contributed $3.84 million to the ranked-choice voting campaigns in 2020, $3.40 million of which was donated to Alaskans for Better Actions. While Unite America provided $445,000 to Voters Choice Massachusetts, the organization’s board co-chair, Kathryn Murdoch, donated $2.50 million and board member Katherine Gehl contributed $250,000. Unite America, founded in 2014 as the Centrist Project, is based in Denver, Colorado, and has the stated purpose of electing officials and enacting electoral laws that reduce partisanship and achieve better governing outcomes. Unite America has a federal hybrid political action committee (PAC) and a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

Opponents of the two ballot measures did not have overlapping donors. In Massachusetts, an opposition PAC raised $8,475. In Alaska, opponents received $579,426, including $150,000 from the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national organization that seeks to elect down-ballot, state-level Republicans, and $50,000 from the Alaska Republican Party. 

In 2020, voters in five cities—two in California, two in Minnesota, and one in Colorado—also decided ranked-choice voting ballot measures. All five measures were approved.

The next scheduled vote on a ranked-choice voting ballot measure is March 2 in Burlington, Vermont. Former Gov. Howard Dean (D) and City Councilmember Zoraya Hightower (Vermont Progressive Party) are co-chairing the support campaign Better Ballot Burlington.

Committees registered to support or oppose all 129 statewide measures on the ballot in 2020 reported a combined total of $1.23 billion in contributions.

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Alaska House organizes under multi-partisan coalition control

On Feb. 18, the Alaska House of Representatives organized under the control of a multipartisan coalition caucus, voting 22-17 to approve a plan of organization placing members of the coalition in charge of committees. Since the start of the legislative session on Jan. 19, the House was split evenly between a Republican bloc and a coalition of Democrats, independents, and Louise Stutes (R). The group was joined by Reps. Sara Rasmussen (R) and Kelly Merrick (R) in the vote on organizing the House (another legislator, Rep. Mike Prax (R), was not present for the vote). Though the coalition caucus received enough votes to organize the chamber, two of the legislators who voted alongside the coalition to assign committee membership —Reps. Sara Rasmussen (R) and Geran Tarr (D)—said they would not join either the coalition or Republican caucuses, leaving both groups without a numerical majority in the 40-member House.

Rasmussen said she would serve as an independent Republican not affiliated with the coalition majority or the Republican minority. With Stutes and Kelly Merrick (R) already a part of the coalition caucus, Rasmussen’s decision left the Republican caucus with 18 members. Tarr (D) also said she would vote independent of the caucus, leaving it with 20 members—14 Democrats, four independents, and two Republicans. Though both Rasmussen and Tarr voted with the coalition caucus to approve committee assignments, neither has stated whether they will continue to support the coalition in future votes. “We’re still working on things here,” Tarr said. Rasmussen said that although she hasn’t “made an agreement to vote on anything,” she hopes that “with compromise, there will be some good policy that can move forward.”

Under the approved organization plan, Rep. Chris Tuck (D) will serve as majority leader and Rep. Cathy Tilton (R) will serve as minority leader. Reps. Neal Foster (D) and Kelly Merrick (R) will co-chair the House Finance Committee and Rep. Bryce Edgmon (I) will lead the Rules Committee, which determines whether bills receive a floor vote. Out of the other eight standing committees in the House, six will be chaired or co-chaired by Democrats, one will be chaired by an independent, and one will be co-chaired by a Democrat and an independent.

The situation in the Alaska House is unusual; generally, the party with a numerical majority organizes to select presiding officers, appoint committee members, and vote on legislation. A coalition caucus was formed in the House after the 2018 elections despite Republicans winning a majority of the seats in the chamber, but that coalition was composed of 25 members, four more than the 21 votes needed to assign committee membership and pass legislation. Republicans maintained a numerical majority of 21 members after the 2020 elections, but Stutes’ decision to join the coalition group left each faction with 20 members. Merrick later joined the coalition bloc as well, but Tarr’s decision to vote separately from the coalition kept it from reaching 21 members.

Jennifer Fletcher, a state legislative librarian, said she did not know of any previous case where a 20-member caucus negotiated with other legislators to acquire the votes necessary to control the chamber. Forrest Nabors, chair of the political science department at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said that the situation in the House was “highly unusual,” but that, in Alaska, “party affiliations are not the same as they are in other states and in the country in general. Hence, I think we err in trying to frame majorities and minorities in our state in terms of parties. For the last three legislative sessions, that mold has been formally broken, and our nomenclature should recognize that break.”

Out of the 99 legislative chambers in the country, the Alaska House is the only chamber under the control of a multipartisan, power-sharing coalition after the 2020 elections, with Republicans controlling 61 legislative chambers and Democrats controlling 37.  Alaska is one of 12 states under divided government as opposed to a state government trifecta in which one party holds the governorship, a majority in the state senate, and a majority in the state house. There are currently 15 Democratic and 23 Republican trifectas.

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Alaska House of Representatives elects speaker for 2021 session

On Feb. 11, twenty-four days after the 2021 legislative session began on Jan. 19th, the Alaska House of Representatives elected a permanent speaker of the House. Members elected Rep. Louise Stutes (R) in a 21-19 vote.

Since the start of the session, House members had been divided between supporters of a Republican-led majority and those favoring a multipartisan coalition. Republicans won a 21-19 majority in the 2020 general election, but in December, Stutes joined the coalition bloc composed of 16 Democrats and three independents, leaving each faction with 20 members.

In January, Reps. Bart LeBon (R), Laddie Shaw (R), and Neal Foster (D) were nominated for the speakership, but each vote ended in an even 20-20 split. On Feb. 4th, the House unanimously elected Rep. Josiah Patkotak (I) as temporary speaker. Rep. Ben Carpenter (R) said the House Republican Caucus nominated Patkotak, who is a member of the coalition bloc, to “alleviate the Lt. Governor from his temporary responsibility as presiding officer and to move the discussion forward about finding a permanent presiding officer.”

Rep. Kelly Merrick’s (R) vote for Stutes ultimately broke the recurring tie votes. Merrick said, “Today, I voted to elect Republican Representative Louise Stutes as Speaker of the House, ending more than three weeks of deadlock and allowing the Legislature to move forward. 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.”

The three-week period without a House speaker is the second-longest in the state’s history. In 2018, similar divisions kept House members from electing a speaker until Feb. 14th, 2019, when a coalition of 15 Democrats, four Republicans, and two independents elected Bryce Edgmon (I) as House speaker and agreed to split other key leadership and committee positions between the two parties.

With split control of the House and Republican control of the Senate and governor’s office, Alaska’s trifecta status remains divided. A trifecta exists when one political party simultaneously holds the governor’s office and majorities in both state legislative chambers. There are currently 23 Republican trifectas, 15 Democratic trifectas, and 12 divided governments where neither party holds trifecta control. After the 2020 elections, Republicans had a net gain of two trifectas and two states under divided government became trifectas.

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Alaska House of Representatives elects temporary speaker

Forty-six state legislatures are currently in session. The Alaska House of Representatives has been in session since Jan. 19. But no regular business has taken place because legislators have not elected a permanent speaker or organized committees.

Partisan control of the House was uncertain after the 2020 elections, split between those favoring a Republican-led majority and those supporting a multi-party coalition. Republicans won 21 of 40 seats, but Rep. Louise Stutes (R) joined a coalition of 16 Democrats and three independents, leaving legislators split into two 20-member factions.

The Alaska House elected Josiah Patkotak (I) unanimously as temporary speaker on Feb. 4. Patkotak was elected to his first term on Nov. 3. He is presiding over the chamber until a permanent speaker is elected, taking over for Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer (R) who had filled the role of presiding officer since the legislative session began. Legislators have not submitted any nominations for a permanent speaker as of Feb. 9.

Alaska has a Republican governor, and Republicans control the state Senate, so final control of the chamber will also determine the state’s trifecta status.

The Alaska House faced a similar situation after the 2018 elections. That year, Republican-aligned candidates won 23 seats, and Democratic-aligned candidates won 17. A coalition of 15 Democrats, four Republicans, and two independents elected Bryce Edgmon (I) as House speaker on Feb. 14, 2019. Edgmon was originally elected as a Democrat but changed his party affiliation to independent before he was elected speaker. Both parties split control of key leadership positions and committees.