Passage by Congress of the Second Organic Act on Aug. 24, 1912, changed Alaska from a District to a Territory, giving it the ability to elect a legislature.
Voters did just that in November, sending 24 residents to Juneau, which had been designated as the capital. The session started March 3. Legislators’ remuneration: $15 per day with 15 cents reimbursement for travel mileage.
Five of the seven members whose homes were on the Seward Peninsula spent 54 days traveling to the capital. Four from Nome left on Jan. 7 via dogsleds and were joined en route by another from the northwest area. They mushed to Fairbanks where they switched to a horse-drawn stage to continue on to Valdez. From there they went by steamship to Juneau, arriving the day before the session convened on Mar. 3, 1913.
The eight senators and 16 representatives had varied backgrounds: businessmen, lawyers, fishermen and miners.
They were not politicians, with only six declaring party affiliations and those divided equally between Democrats and Republicans. Only 15 of the representatives were seated. J. J. Mullaly of Fairbanks had gone Outside before the election results were in and failed to make it to Juneau.
Seated as members of Alaska’s first Territorial Legislature were Senators Elwood Bruner, Conrad Freeding, Thomas McGann, B. F. Millard, L. V. Ray, Henry Roden, Dan Sutherland, J.M. Tanner and Herman Tripp. Members of the House of Representatives were Frank Aldrich, Frank Boyle, William Burns, Earnest Collins, Daniel Driscoll, Thomas Gaffney, Robert Gray, Charles Ingersoll, H. B. Ingram, Charles D. Jones, Milo Kelly, James C. Kennedy, Arthur Shoup, William Stubbins and N. J. Svindseth.
Ray, an attorney from Seward, was elected as president of the Senate and Collins, a Fairbanks miner, was chosen as Speaker of the House.
The Organic Act, which had been submitted by Alaska Delegate to Congress James Wickersham, specified that the Legislature would meet every other year for sessions that lasted 60 days.
It retained for the federal government the right to regulate natural resources such as mining, fish and game and lands. The Territory was prohibited from borrowing money. Judicial decisions were left up to district courts. United States Marshals enforced the law—as much as possible within limited resources.
There was plenty of work facing the men assembled in the hall. Their first bill was a simply-worded measure granting women the right to vote and passed unanimously. It made Alaska the tenth of the states and territories to do so, Wyoming having been the first. There was some incongruity, however, when those same legislators levied a $4 poll tax that applied only to men aged 21 to 50. It did, however, exempt volunteer firemen from the tax.
The legislators faced a difficult task in setting up local government for the huge and diverse area.
They had to come up with a budget while facing restrictions on funding. Some local government functions had been exercised under the District of Alaska, but those had to be reviewed and other measures established. Of great value were copies of the codes of Oregon, which had been a territory before achieving statehood in 1859. Its history and legislative actions were most favored among the legislators and their advisors over those of other territories.
Everything the Legislature did was subject to approval by the governor. He was not elected as were the legislators but was appointed by the President. The first Legislature convened under Gov. Walter Eli Clark who had been appointed in 1909 by President William H. Taft. In 2012, however, Woodrow Wilson had won the White House and John Franklin Alexander Strong was the man he chose as governor. Strong at the time was editor and publisher of the Juneau Empire, having come north during the 1898 Stampede; he had edited newspapers in both Southeast and along what was to become the Iditarod Trail before taking over the Juneau paper. Strong’s tenure started 20 days after the session ended, taking the oath of office on May 21.
Being a fellow Alaskan, Strong did not overturn any of the actions of that first Legislature.
Among the 84 bills were ones making it mandatory for children age 8 to 16 to attend school, establishing standards for mine safety and naming a board of examiners, setting up procedures for recording births and deaths, writing regulations governing banks and corporations, setting taxes on businesses and a poll tax, setting up examiners for pharmacies, doctors and dentists and putting criminal and civil codes into effect.
In addition to giving women the right to vote in local elections, the legislators turned a kindly eye toward helping destitute sourdoughs. They established a Pioneer Home at Sitka to care for miners who were no longer able to work and were without means.
According to a report in Fairbanks’ Alaska Citizen newspaper, Gov. Clark found problems in the Organic Act as it affected the Legislature. The article claimed that the Act was seriously flawed. One of those flaws was that while the Legislature was able to levy a tax, there was no provision as on whom would fall the duty of collecting and enforcing it.
Clark’s successor, Strong, threatened to call a special session if Congress did not act to make a correction allowing federal officials to collect the poll tax and U.S. marshals to enforce it. The special session apparently was not needed. An amendment to the Act became law on Aug. 29, 1914, insuring that laws passed by the Territorial Legislature could be enforced by federal officials—but specifying that costs would have to be borne by taxpayers of Alaska, not the United States as a whole.
Many changes to the Legislature have been seen over the 105 years since that first session—which started on March 3 and ended May 1, 59 days later.
Membership since has grown with the population, from 24 to 60 members. Although women could vote in 1914, it was not until 1937 that a female was seated in the Legislature. Nell Scott, a secretary in an Anchorage law firm and chairwoman of the Alaska Federation of Women’s Clubs, became the first of her gender to have that honor. William Paul, Sr., was the first Alaska Native to serve after the Ketchikan attorney was elected in 1924.
Average salary for legislators currently is $80,000 to $90,000 per year. They get $200 or more a day per diem for living expenses while in session. They also receive $20,000 for office expenses. Legislative staff members are paid by the State.
The state constitution sets a limit of 120 days on regular sessions but allows a 10-day extension. A 2006 voter-approved initiative, however, imposes a 90-day limit. In recent years that limit has been somewhat ineffective, resulting in special sessions being called to complete business.
In addition to the 29th State Legislature’s 2015 and 2016 sessions, there were four special sessions, the members meeting for a total of 310 days. They passed 116 of the 614 bills that were introduced.
The 30th Legislature is currently in its second session, the first year involving the 90-day regular session and four special sessions. In the first year, 32 bill were passed. By mid-point of the current session, four bills had been passed and sent to the governor.
While the first Territorial Legislature was not controlled by a political party, the body has taken a more political tone over the succeeding 105 years.
In 1958, when the Alaska Statehood Bill was passed, the Legislature was controlled by Democrats, with Victor Rivers as president of the Senate and Richard Gruel as speaker of the House. Democrats continued in control of both houses until the Fifth State Legislature in 1967 saw Republican John Butrovich as Senate president and William Boardman, a Democrat, as speaker of the House.
Coalitions began to show up in the late 1970s as individuals crossed the aisle to form a majority favoring a particular issue or cause. Such is the case currently, with the Senate controlled by Republicans and the House by a coalition formed when some Republicans crossed over to form a majority organization.
Until the dawn of the 21st Century, partisan divides were usually resolved by compromises and the people’s business accomplished. Now, however, partisanship seems to be taking prominence over governance, both locally and nationally.
This writer is content to be an observer of history. He will leave it to the political analysts to opine on what is best for Alaska and critique those who have been chosen by voters to be our leaders.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.