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Feel-good House contrasts with testy Senate as Legislature gears up in Juneau

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- It's a tale of two houses in the Alaska Legislature.

In the House of Representatives, good feelings abound, heightened by sadness over the departure of well-liked Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, the former House minority leader.

In the Senate, less so.

There, new Senate Minority Leader Hollis French, D-Anchorage, says the body is "off on the wrong foot" after Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, denied a requested change of committee assignments.

As French took over as leader of the Democratic minority, he wanted to step down from the time-consuming Resources Committee and in turn have Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, take over on the committee that French co-chaired in the last session. French would then take over Wielechowski's State Affairs Committee seat.

French called the request "simple" and "reasonable," but Huggins said no.

"When a reasonable request is rejected, it does not foster goodwill," French said.

Praising Chenault

Contrast that with the House, where new Minority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, was allowed by the House speaker to step down from the House Resources Committee and have another knowledgeable Democrat, Rep. Scott Kawasaki of Fairbanks, fill in.

"My notion is to honor their wishes on committee assignments," Chenault said Tuesday, and that happened.

Kerttula praised Chenault's leadership and said that her resignation, effective Friday, would drop her Democratic caucus to nine members. That's below the 10 members that under House rules guarantee committee assignments, staff and other benefits.

But she said that because of the respect she had for Chenault's sense of fairness, she wasn't worried about that happening.

"It's with profound gratitude that I know that's not the kind of person the speaker is, and that's not going to happen," Kerttula said. "It's an amazing thing to know that things will go forward in an even-handed way," she said.

Not switching

But Huggins said French and Wielechowski would have to keep the committees they were assigned before French became minority leader.

"They asked for those committees, they got those committees, they have those committees and they'll have those committees" he said.

Two years ago, Huggins and Sen. John Coghill made a similar swap of the minority leader position, but they felt no need to change committee assignments, he said.

"We're all accustomed to workloads around here," Huggins said.

French, though, had a different example from the last legislature that he thought was more relevant. In that session, Wielechowski co-chaired the State Affairs committee, but allowed a minority Republican a seat on the committee, even though the minority was too small to qualify for one under the Senate rules.

"He went out of his way to be fair," French said.

That seat then went to Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, a pro-oil industry senator who now chairs the Senate Resources Committee.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com