Unanimous ferry reform bill prompts constitutional challenge from Alaska’s governor

House Bill 63 would create an Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board tasked with crafting both short- and long-term planning for Alaska’s ferry fleet. It would bind the Alaska Department of Transportation to incorporate the board’s directions into daily operations.

The Alaska Marine Highway System has been struggling with deep funding cuts, an aging fleet and steep declines in ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My hometown of Sitka is getting less ferry service than any point since the 1960s,” Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D-Sitka) said on the House floor Wednesday. “That sort of puts things into context that we are definitely going backwards and not forwards. And it really affects people’s lives.”

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, says that ballot selfies should be recognized as a form of political speech in Alaska. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

He relayed his experience as a coastal resident left in the lurch: At the end of last year’s legislative session, there were no state ferries between the capital and his hometown, so he used a private carrier.

“It took me four weeks on Alaska Marine Lines to barge my car, from Juneau to Sitka,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “This is simply not tenable for quality of life or commerce.”

Reforming the Alaska Marine Highway System has been a priority of coastal legislators who want more autonomy for the state ferry system. And House Bill 63 found bipartisan support with Railbelt lawmakers like Rep. James Kauffman (R-Anchorage), who worked to refine the legislation.

Coming from South Anchorage, I didn’t think I would be getting all busy on a bill about the ferries,” the freshman legislator told fellow lawmakers. “But it turned out it was an enjoyable process, even though it was hard work.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy floated a similar initiative earlier in the year that’s stalled in a House committee.

But this bill differs by requiring four of the board’s nine members be appointed by legislative leadership. That could be a sticking point with the executive branch, which released a statement questioning the House bill’s constitutionality just hours after its passage.  

The governor’s office says allowing lawmakers to appoint members to an executive board violates the separation of powers.

“The Governor and Speaker (Louise) Stutes both share the belief that the advisory board needs to be reformed,” Governor’s Office spokesman Jeff Turner told CoastAlaska by email. “However, the board appointment process contained in HB 63 is considered to be unconstitutional by the administration because it permits the presiding officers of the legislature to appoint members to an executive board.”

That wrinkle was raised in an April 6 legal memo to lawmakers. But legislative counsel said since the operations board would be largely advisory, a court may find no legal issues exist.

The bill now heads to the state Senate for consideration, where its first hearing is set for May 11. 

The bill comes as lawmakers announce they’ve reached a consensus on a plan that would forward fund the ferry system by 18 months, rather than a year. The ferry system is also in line to receive nearly $77 million in federal pandemic relief.

But the final ferry budget remains to be worked out by both legislative houses and signed by the governor.

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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