Dunleavy moves to control appointments to Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board

A seating area on the Tazlina ferry on March 9, 2023. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued 12 executive orders at the beginning of this year’s legislative session. One of those would bring big changes to a board tasked with overseeing Alaska’s ferry system.

Right now, legislative leaders in the Alaska House and Senate have the power to appoint four of the board’s nine members. The executive order would change that — allowing the governor to appoint all nine.

The order didn’t get a formal look from senators until this week, when it came before the Senate Transportation Committee. It’s scheduled for public testimony tomorrow at 1:30 p.m.

Alaska Public Media state government reporter Eric Stone spoke to KTOO’s Katie Anastas about what the board does and why some lawmakers are skeptical.

Katie Anastas: So, this executive order is all about the Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board. Let’s start with the basics — what is this board?

Eric Stone: So, it’s a committee made up of nine members. It’s supposed to help the AMHS plot its future course, so to speak. They’re also supposed to give advice on basically how to run the ferry system better. It was created by the Legislature to replace the previous version, the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, which was criticized as ineffective. And there are all kinds of folks on it. There’s a union member, a representative of a tribal group, there’s a deputy transportation commissioner, and then six members who have specific expertise in a variety of areas that are helpful to the Marine Highway System. 

Here’s Sen. James Kaufman. He is an Anchorage Republican, and he was one of the architects of the board:

James Kaufman: We wanted to be sure that, in aggregate, that the board had, not any one person, but when pulled all together, that the board had the technical competencies around enterprise management, quality management, the different things that help.

Eric Stone: And I spoke with Rep. Louise Stutes, the former speaker, in early February about this — she’s a Kodiak Republican and a big ferry system booster  — and she says the board and its structure was the product of consensus:

Louise Stutes: We really took a lot of time and care to work on it. It was a bipartisan, bicameral piece of legislation that passed both bodies unanimously. So it’s a little bit difficult for me to accept redoing the whole board.

Katie Anastas: And so the executive order would allow the governor to appoint all members, and not just a majority of them.

Eric Stone: That’s right.

Katie Anastas: And do we know why the governor wants that change?

Eric Stone: I was wondering that for quite a while, actually. Until this week, all the administration had really said about this publicly is that the executive order made the government more effective and efficient and provided mechanisms for accountability, but they hadn’t really explained how. And we did get something of an explanation from the Department of Transportation on Tuesday. DOT’s Andy Mills works with the board pretty closely. He’s also the legislative liaison for the Department of Transportation. And he told the Senate Transportation Committee that the administration wanted the board to be accountable to the governor:

Andy Mills: How the board appointing power works does create a layer of accountability that may not exist for the board to work with the department and again, my words, my characterization, but sometimes interactions and again, very specific interactions, not the entire board. It’s been more adversarial than advisory, which is unfortunate.

Eric Stone: DOT Commissioner Ryan Anderson says the board isn’t delivering the short- and long-term plans that it’s tasked with crafting, and he compared the board with some of the other boards that have all the members appointed by the governor, like the Roads and Highways Advisory Board.

Ryan Anderson: Alignment is a word that I think of quite a bit when we’re talking about these boards that you know, boards that are aligned that come together, move things forward quickly.

Katie Anastas: And did those ideas ring true for lawmakers?

Eric Stone: Some lawmakers were skeptical. Sen. Kaufman took issue with the idea that it’s the board’s job to come up with short- and long-term plans for the ferry system. Kaufman says the board’s job is to give advice on plans that DOT is supposed to come up with, thus it’s not quite right to say that the board isn’t doing its job. Sen. Jesse Kiehl, he’s a Juneau Democrat, big booster of the ferry system. He took issue with the commissioner’s characterization that certain members weren’t aligned with one another. He said in past years, he’s seen marine highway leadership pretty well aligned…   

Jesse Kiehl: …making tens or hundreds of millions of dollars of decisions, sometimes in ways that have turned out to be inefficient, sometimes in ways that have turned out to be failures. Quickly achieving alignment may or may not be in the best interest of the system at all.

Eric Stone: So Anderson, the DOT commissioner, he emphasized later in the meeting that two of the members that are appointed by the Legislature — who happen to be the chair and vice chair of this board — would not necessarily be replaced if this order takes effect. But, of course, all the members would serve at the pleasure of the governor, and that means that they could be replaced at any time.

Katie Anastas: Okay, got it. So what comes next?

Eric Stone: So, the Senate Transportation Committee will hear some public testimony, and then they’ll likely move it out of committee to the Senate floor. From there, the path is a bit murkier. The Legislature has until mid-March to take a joint session vote on disapproving the governor’s executive orders, and that would prevent them from taking effect. But the House has to invite the Senate into joint session for that to happen, and all this objection we’ve been hearing has been on the Senate side. Last we heard, the House was open to a joint session, but they hadn’t quite worked out the details of how that would work. And even if they do come into joint session, it’s no guarantee they’ll wind up voting the orders down. So you’ll just have to stay tuned.

Katie Anastas: Alright. That was Alaska Public Media’s Eric Stone. Eric, thanks for being here.

Eric Stone: Thanks for having me.

Eric Stone covers state government, tracking the Alaska Legislature, state policy and its impact on all Alaskans. Reach him at estone@alaskapublic.org.

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