Rep. Cathy Tilton of Wasilla has been voted Speaker of the state House of Representatives, the first Mat-Su legislator to hold the position since Jalmar Kerttula in the 1960s.
She is also the first female leader of the House.
Tllton was voted in on the second day of the 2023 legislative session, defying predictions that the 40-member House, split evenly on partisan lines, would be delayed in organizing.
Three indepedents and three Democrats, Rep. Andy Story of Juneau, Rep. Richard Foster, D-Nome and newly-elected Rep. C.J. McCormick of Bethel, joined three independents and Republicans to vote for Tilton, as did the previous Speaker, Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, who crossed party lines to join Democrats in a coalition two years ago.
Independents voting for Tilton include Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, also a former House Speaker, Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, and Rep. Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiaqvik.
Tilton was the House Minority Leader in the last Legislature and won praise for her ability to navigate splits between conservative and moderate Republicans.
It’s yet unclear whether a Republican organization led by Tilton will include Democrats or whether it can be called a coalition. Meetings were underway Wednesday afternoon on the details of organization, said Trey Watson, spokesperson for the House Republicans.
It’s also not known what commitments Tilton may have made to Democrats and independents voting for her. Edgmon, Ortiz and Foster are veterans on the House Finance Committee, so seats on the committee in the new Legislature would seem logical, but whether those are as Majority or Minority members is unclear.
Story and Ortiz are interested in education, so a role in school issues, which will loom large this year, would make sense. Foster, Patkotak and McCormack are rural legislators, and while it has been some time rural lawmakers have joined coalitions with Republicana to ensure rural interests are safeguarded.
Meanwhile, the state Senate, which organized early with Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, as Senate President, has made education funding and a change in state public employee and teacher pensions a priority.
Anchorage Sen. Löki Gale Tobin, a Democrat, is new chair of the Senate Education Committee, where hearings are already planned to review school funding and teacher retention problems. A change in the Base Student Allocation, a formula that guides state funding for school districts, is at the top of Tobin’s list along with issues like pupil transportation. Education groups would like to see an adjustment in the formula to offset inflation.
The Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, with newly-elected Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Kenai, as chair, will take the lead in reviewing problems in the state pension system. What’s likely to emerge is for public employees to have an option of joining a “defined benefits,” plan, or traditional pensions along with the current pension system of “defined contribution,” a kind of 401-K plan.
Changes in the pension system are important in recruiting teachers and other public workers, and in retaining experienced employees, education and public employee groups say.