JUNEAU — Alaska House Democrats have regained prominence after years of limited influence, with their support expected to be critical in passing a budget this session.
Their leader is Rep. Chris Tuck, whom colleagues see as well-suited for the job: He’s a union organizer with a disarming laugh and a willingness to hear people out.
“He’s built great relationships in this building,” said House Majority Leader Charisse Millett, a Republican who went to high school with Tuck in Anchorage and remains a good friend.
Tuck took over as minority leader in 2014, five years into his legislative career. As a lawmaker, he’s particularly proud of winning support for the early childhood parent support program, Parents as Teachers.
But it is once again targeted for elimination as the state grapples with a multibillion-dollar budget deficit amid chronically low oil prices.
The deficit is the reason House Democrats have re-emerged as players. The state has been using savings to help balance the budget, but to tap the constitutional budget reserve, a three-fourths vote is generally needed in each the House and Senate.
That’s not an issue in the Senate, where 16 of the 20 members are in the majority, and the majority is obligated to vote for the budget. But the House majority falls four members shy of the threshold, meaning at least some support from the Democratic-led minority is needed.
Lawmakers turned to the budget reserve last year after an easier-to-access reserve fund had been drawn down.
Legislative leaders say they don’t want a repeat of last year, when it took two special sessions to reach a compromise. Some in the Senate said they were being held hostage by Democrats wanting to spend more money.
Tuck said he is proud of the party’s position on issues such as university and education funding and said ideas pitched as cost-savers were rejected, such as expanding Medicaid or deferring payment of some oil tax credits.
Republicans saw expansion as a bigger policy debate and credits as an obligation that still needed to be paid. Gov. Bill Walker later acted on both.
This year, legislators are not just considering budget cuts but also whether to start using earnings from the Alaska Permanent Fund for state government. Walker has proposed oil tax credit changes, a personal income tax and industry tax increases.
Tuck and House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, hope to work out issues before later in the session.
“We’ll continue to work, and my hope is that we can come to some agreement without the problems that we had last year,” Chenault said. “But we’ll see at the end of the day how well it works.”
Tuck, 49, moved to Alaska as a child. A political ideology class in college piqued his interest in politics.
He made two failed bids for the Legislature before winning a seat on the Anchorage school board. In 2008, he was elected to the state House but faced a Republican party challenge over his eligibility. The case was later dismissed.
Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson of Anchorage called Tuck bright, affable and “pretty squarely in the middle” of the political spectrum among Democrats. People leave meetings with Tuck feeling heard, he said.
Tuck is a motorcycle enthusiast who counts dog mushing among his interests. He rocks the recorder, an instrument that produces airy, flute-like sounds. Members of his family appear on the reality TV show “Yukon Men,” he said. He has a 23-year-old son named Devon.
Tuck’s partner, Bernadette Wilson, gave birth to their daughter, Penelope, last year on what was supposed to be the last day of the regular session. Wilson is a Republican who has hosted TV and radio shows in Anchorage.
Tuck said he and Wilson don’t really debate politics.
“We actually agree on a lot more than I think people realize at first blush,” Wilson said.