Alaska House prepares to block legislative pay increase, but top senators say they’re uninterested
In the Alaska Capitol, committee chairs can exert an enormous amount of power, as demonstrated by the ‘Bert Locker’
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, is seen on the floor of the Alaska Senate on Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
As soon as Friday, the Alaska House of Representatives will vote on a bill that would block planned raises for state legislators and top members of the executive branch.
Passage of the bill is expected — members of the House’s coalition majority and multipartisan minority caucuses have already expressed their support of the idea — but leading members of the Alaska Senate say the idea is dead on arrival when it crosses the building and arrives in their chamber.
While it takes 11 senators to pass a bill, it doesn’t take many to kill one — if they hold the right position.
“I think it’s a past issue right now,” said Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, on Tuesday.
Stevens and other top senators have said they believe the raises are necessary to help the executive branch hire competent officials and to make it possible for poor Alaskans to afford to serve in the Legislature.
“Frankly, that issue needed to be addressed,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka and a supporter of the increase.
Various members of the House, and some members of the Senate, have objected to the raises, citing the state’s expected budget deficit, but even if the House passes the bill that would block the raises, senators don’t expect the measure to advance in the Senate.
“I expect it to be referred to finance, to where my bill is, and it won’t be taken up,” said Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer and an advocate of the bill blocking the raises.
“It’s not going to happen,” Stedman said.
Before the full House or Senate vote on a bill, Capitol rules require the bill be considered by one or more committees. If a bill doesn’t get scheduled by a committee, it can’t advance without special action. Legislative rules put that scheduling in the hands of the committee chair.
Last week, Hughes asked the state Senate to take a ceremonial vote on the legislative raises.
Stevens immediately referred Hughes’ request to the Senate Finance Committee, and fellow senators noted that it had been sent to the “Bert Locker.”
That term, common in the Capitol, has been used for more than a decade to refer to the way that the Sitka Republican, who used to be in charge of scheduling bills in the finance committee, held tight to legislation as a negotiating tactic.
Because any bill with a financial cost must go through the finance committee, being the committee’s co-chair is a powerful position.
In 2009 or 2010 — staffers and former legislators say they aren’t sure of the timing — then-Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, combined Stedman’s name with the name of the movie “The Hurt Locker” to show his frustration with the Sitka senator, going so far as to create a mockup movie poster with Stedman as the star. The term was also used in the year’s legislative skits, the annual pantomime show poking fun at Capitol business, and it’s stuck around since then.
“It’s kind of legendary,” Wielechowski said. “For years, bills would go to finance to die.”
Stedman said he doesn’t mind the term.
“I think it’s kind of funny,” he said. “You’ve just got to take it tongue in cheek, because the chairman of the bills at the Senate Finance Committee has got to watch the checkbook, and somebody has to say, ‘no.’ Everybody knows it, so they make that particular person the bad cop.”
“As they say, all good bills go to finance to die,” Stedman said.
Referring to the “Bert Locker” is obsolete now — Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, is now in charge of scheduling bills — but Stedman is still in charge of the operating budget in the Senate, and its continued use illustrates the way legislative procedure, and even a single lawmaker, can affect the flow of legislation in the Capitol.
The phenomenon doesn’t just matter for legislative raises. A housing anti-discrimination bill that passed a House committee this week likely has enough support to pass the state House, supporters say, but it must first survive the House Judiciary Committee, which includes the most conservative members of the House.
Last year, a pension bill for police and firefighters was stymied for weeks in the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee because of opposition by its then-chair, Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage.
Former state Rep. Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna, earned a derivative nickname — the “Kurt Locker” — for Stedman-like actions during his time as chair of the House Labor and Commerce Committee, former staffers said this week. (By text message, Olson said he recalls the term and thought it retired when he did.)
Normally, scheduling isn’t a problem for bills at this point in the legislative session. There’s almost 50 days remaining before the constitutional limit of this year’s session, plus the possibility of another 121 days next year.
But the compensation issue is different — under state law, the raises will take place unless the Legislature passes (and the governor approves) a bill rejecting them within 60 days.
That means the clock is already ticking, and a lack of action this year means the raises automatically come into effect.
Olson said he hasn’t yet come to a decision on whether or not to hear a compensation bill that comes over from the House.
Doing so would require a conversation among him, Stedman, and Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, he said. All three are co-chairs in charge of different parts of finance committee business this year.
“We haven’t discussed it among the three co-chairs,” Olson said. “And so once we discuss it, we’ll come to a decision on that one. But I tend to hear all bills, because it’s a colleague of mine that’s requesting it. And so, that’s my bias.”
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