Rural lawmakers wield power without recent precedent

Nov 28, 2016

Sen. Lyman Hoffman (D-Bethel) and Rep. Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham) cutting the ribbon at the Wood River Bridge in 2015.
Credit Misty Nielson

Reps. Edgmon and Foster, Sen. Hoffman examples of rural legislators in prominent positions ahead of next session.

Dillingham Democrat Bryce Edgmon will be the first speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives from off the road system or outside of Southeast Alaska since Nome’s Howard Lyng in the Territorial Legislature of 1941. Other rural lawmakers will hold more important leadership posts in the next legislature than they have had in decades.

Audio Transcript: Edgmon and two key committee chairmen are from northern or western Alaska.

Nome Democrat Neal Foster will be co-chairman of the House Finance Committee. Bethel Democrat Lyman Hoffman will be co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. It will be the first time both budget-writing committees will have chairs from Bush Alaska since 1990. Hoffman also was a finance chair then, when he served in the house.

Edgmon said the rural leaders are part of a broader regional balance that will be good for the entire state.

“I think it will be good for rural Alaska, and from my standpoint, it’s always good to have regional diversity on the finance committees, as well as other committees,” Edgmon said.

Rural lawmakers have a tradition dating back decades of joining majority caucuses. But this session they’re playing a particularly central role in control of the House. Edgmon and Foster joined with three Republicans to switch from the current Republican-led majority to the primarily Democratic incoming majority.

What this means for rural residents is uncertain. Rural lawmakers have traditionally argued for maintaining or increasing government services. Service increases will be difficult due to the state’s budget crisis. But the incoming House majority is interested in striking a balance that includes both spending cuts and new revenue, like a broad-based income or sales tax, to maintain services. Edgmon expects Foster and his finance committee co-chair Paul Seaton will keep this in mind.

“Both individuals – Rep. Seaton from Homer, Rep. Foster from Nome – are very committed to taking a balanced approach to figuring out the fiscal challenges that lie ahead,” Edgmon said.

Former University of Alaska Southeast political scientist Clive Thomas noted the state government funds a large share of jobs in rural Alaska. And Thomas expects the rural lawmakers to be at the forefront in defending school funding.

“It’s a major income generator in most villages – probably the major income generator – so I think that’s one of the things that they will be concerned about and want to protect,” Thomas said.

Edgmon said there’s another historic element of the new leadership.

“I’m very proud to be the first speaker of Alaska Native heritage,” Edgmon said. “And that’s something that I hope can serve as a role model for future speakers with Alaska Native blood.”

Edgmon said he’s a little less than a quarter Aleut, and he also grew up learning Yupik words and phrases in Dillingham, where the two cultures overlap.

“I grew up in a small town, so I bring small-town values to whatever I do,” Edgmon said. “And I think by nature I’m somebody who listens first and I’m not always the biggest talker in the room. And maybe that hearkens back to my Alaska Native upbringing.”

The budget’s effect on rural areas and the rest of the state will be clearer in mid-December, when Gov. Bill Walker is scheduled to unveil his budget proposal.