- Associated Press - Monday, January 16, 2017

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Among Alaska’s newest legislators, there is optimism and an eagerness to get to work on addressing the state’s multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

Rep.-elect George Rauscher of Sutton, who upset incumbent Rep. Jim Colver in last year’s Republican primary, said he’s “pretty jazzed” about the legislative session, which starts Tuesday. He has already proposed legislation, including revisiting a constitutional spending limit.

Rauscher is among this year’s freshmen class of lawmakers. One-quarter of the 60-member Legislature will be comprised of new faces.

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There are other changes, too: The House, long held by Republicans, will be controlled by a coalition largely comprised of Democrats that formed around a desire to tackle the deficit after last year’s gridlocked sessions. The Senate will remain in GOP control.

“I think if you’re looking to solve the problem, you will,” Rauscher said in his Capitol office Monday, adding later: “I think we’re anticipating getting something accomplished and to do that, we’re going to have to work with each other.”

Rep.-elect Gary Knopp of Kenai, who won the seat held by retiring Republican Rep. Kurt Olson, said he arrived in Juneau “pretty lean,” with four suitcases and no car. He got a place to stay within walking distance of the Capitol and looks forward to “long, hard days.”

“I think we’ve been through a brutal couple years prior to getting here, as far as the budget goes,” Knopp, a Republican, said. “I think everybody acknowledges where we’re at today and what we’ve got to focus on.”

The challenge for lawmakers will be trying to find common ground on a path forward, with different views on taxes and how much more deeply to cut the state budget. The proposed use of earnings from Alaska’s oil wealth nest egg to help pay for state government also is expected to be debated.

Republican Rep.-elect Chuck Kopp of Anchorage said reductions, reforms and revenue all should be up for discussion. Kopp won the seat held by Republican Rep. Craig Johnson, who last year made an unsuccessful bid for state Senate.

“I think there is angst on both sides of the aisle about what the right balance is, and I think now more than ever we need people who can communicate well with each other, and see the best in each other,” Kopp said, adding that he feels positive. “I couldn’t do this job if I wasn’t optimistic.”

Kopp, Knopp and Rauscher will be part of the 18-member House GOP minority.

Legislators were still settling in to their offices Monday, a process that Democratic Rep.-elect Dean Westlake of Kotzebue said has been a bit overwhelming.

Westlake’s office is on the ground floor of the Capitol, which he likes. It means visitors won’t have to take an elevator or the stairs to get there.

“I thought, ‘Oh, good. If we get elders in here, this isn’t going to be a real challenge,’ ” he said. “So it’s a good thing for me.”

Westlake defeated Rep. Benjamin Nageak in last year’s Democratic primary. Nageak challenged the outcome, winning at the Superior Court level, but the Alaska Supreme Court reinstated Westlake as the winner.

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