Drama over confirmation vote: Clash between governor and Legislature not unprecedented
Updated Thursday, April 16 at 9 a.m.
Gov. Bill Walker took an extraordinary step on Wednesday. He issued an executive order calling the Legislature in joint session to vote on his cabinet and board appointments.
The governor has scheduled Friday morning for the vote. Legislative leaders had originally set aside Friday afternoon, but postponed it. It appears to have been a strategy move, based on the governor’s expected veto of House Bill 132, pipeline legislation sponsored by House Speaker Mike Chenault.
Under state law, the deadline for the governor’s veto falls on Saturday. Earlier this week, Republican Majority leaders said they were hoping to reach an agreement with the governor to avert the veto and a contentious battle to override it.
“It’s quite ill advised, but it’s a power play by Republicans in the Legislature to get their way,” said Sen. Johnny Ellis, a Democrat and one of the longest-serving lawmakers in the Legislature.
Ellis said the confirmation vote was being used as leverage for HB 132 as well as Medicaid and some of the governor’s other must-haves this session.
“It’s not a good process, and it sort of increases or magnifies the possibility there could be a real train wreck,” Ellis said.
When Ellis was a college student and legislative aide, he saw one of those legislative dramas play out in 1983, during Gov. Bill Sheffield’s second year in office.
“The House Majority was dominated by some cantankerous, conservative Republicans,” Ellis said. “That crowd thought they could refuse to attend a joint session for confirmation.”
When some of the lawmakers went into hiding to avoid the joint session, Sheffield, a Democrat, wasn’t about to let them get away with it. Alaska State Troopers were sent out to bring them back to the State Capitol.
“Several of them went out on a boat in Gastineau Channel near Juneau to avoid the state troopers and the [sergeant-at-arms] that were sent out to find them,” Ellis said. “Yes, it was high drama around here.”
Ellis called Sheffield’s actions courageous and necessary to preserve the executive branch’s authority, which is one of the most powerful among all state governments.
Eventually the rogue lawmakers were rounded up, some of them forcibly — and the confirmation vote took place.
Had lawmakers adjourned and skipped the confirmation vote, under state law all the governor’s cabinet and board appointments would have been wiped out — requiring the governor to start from scratch. The law also prevents the governor from reappointing the same people to the same position.
The president of the Senate, Kevin Meyer, said legislative leaders had no intention of letting such a scenario play out — and on Wednesday morning met with the governor to assure him they would hold confirmation hearings.
“I think we support most of his conferees. We want them to get their positions,” Meyer said, adding that one or two might not get confirmed.
Meyer said there are concerns about Attorney General Craig Richard’s career litigating against the oil and gas industry, as well as the qualifications of two of the governor’s appointments to the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation Board.
The governor removed two AGDC board members with pipeline construction experience and replaced them with former senators Rick Halford and Joe Paskvan.
“I think those two AGDC board members are questionable simply because they don’t have any qualifications in building pipelines,” Meyer said.
Despite Meyer’s opposition to some of the appointments, he says it would be wrong for the Legislature to hold the confirmation hearings hostage.
“When we talked to him, we said that’s not going to happen,” Meyer said. “The governor shouldn’t be concerned. We are going to do it.”
The only question is when.
So when push comes to shove on Friday morning, when lawmakers convene for the joint session ordered by the governor, what are some possible scenarios?
One option Meyer said lawmakers are weighing is to gavel in and gavel out and return to their own agenda — taking up the confirmation vote when they’re ready to deal with it.
Meyer said he doesn’t understand why the governor has taken such action after he and the House speaker personally gave the governor guarantees a confirmation vote would take place.
“I don’t know why he did that. It’s not necessary,” Meyer said.
In a statement, the governor said actions legislative leaders took earlier in the session prompted his decision to order the lawmakers into a joint session Friday. He said they had requested a legal opinion on the consequences of canceling a confirmation vote.
“It leaves me little choice but to issue the proclamation to ensure that we fulfill our fiduciary obligation to Alaskans so government continues to function. The risk that these hardworking Alaskans will not have the opportunity of a confirmation vote is unacceptable,” Walker said in his statement.
The growing tension between the executive branch and Republican Majority leaders appears to be heading toward a number of showdowns in the few days remaining in the 90-day session: A veto, an attempt to override the veto, confirmation of his cabinet and appointees, and perhaps a refusal to vote on one of the governor’s top priorities — Medicaid expansion.
The governor has already said he may call the Legislature back into session to work on Medicaid expansion if no bill is passed, so the drama of the final days could be far from over.
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