Lawmakers girding for lengthy, tense vote on Dunleavy nominations
Lawmakers are preparing what could be a high tension vote Wednesday on more than 100 of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s board and cabinet appointments.
For Dunleavy, it will be the first time lawmakers are considering his appointments. He needs 31 votes of approval for each appointment.
“Every time that we’ve had first-year governors there’s been high tension,” said Senate Rules Committee chair John Coghill, R-North Pole. “This is not an unusual year on that account.”
Some of the tension began playing out during confirmation hearings by standing committees.
On Monday night, a joint hearing with the House Resources and Special Committee on Fisheries lasted four hours while looking at four Board of Fisheries candidates, most of it focusing on former Superior Court Judge Karl Johnstone.
Johnstone served on the board for seven years until 2015 when he stepped down under Gov. Walker’s administration. Critics reprised concerns over a 2000 Alaska Supreme Court reprimand — even as it was four years after he retired from the bench — over his handling of how he oversaw the hiring of a coroner in his judicial district.
“I was wrong and I made a mistake,” he told the committee. “I was sorry for it then and I’m still sorry for it.”
Critics also took exception with his staying in a downtown Anchorage hotel at the state's expense when the board had a meeting rather than return to his home 17 miles away.
Opponents also cited Johnstone’s perceived bias against the commercial fishing industry. During public testimony, Frances Leach, executive director for the United Fishermen of Alaska, took issue with a 2017 published opinion in a daily newspaper calling the commercial industry “old” and “fading.”
“Our industry is anything but old and fading,” Leach said. “To suggest otherwise shows a deep lack of understanding and respect for our contributions to the state and our livelihoods. We will never end these fish wars if we continue to confirm people like Johnstone and allow them to perpetuate their biases and not be open to conversations with all user groups concerning our shared resources.”
Supporters, however, countered that Johnstone’s experience, especially as a board chair speak well for him. They added he has the right temperament to return to the board.
“That healthy tension and diversity of user experiences and the ability to adjudicate different user profiles is exemplified in Judge Johnstone,” said Ben Mohr of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, “and we have a significant amount of respect for his experience and his ability to guide Alaska’s fisheries issues in a responsible way.”
Sen. Coghill said Board of Fish appointments are always divisive because they represent allotments among three groups — commercial, sport and subsistence — and he expects Johnstone to part a group of hotly debated votes.
Despite the recent push back against some of Dunleavy’s administrative nominees, it’s extremely rare that a cabinet level appointment fails to get the requisite 31 votes. Though in 2009, the Legislature rejected Gov. Sarah Palin’s attorney general appointee Wayne Anthony Ross.
Lawmakers expect a handful of other appointments are expected to generate debate, including:
Amanda Price, nominated to be public safety commissioner
While most cabinet-level confirmation hearings have already been heard, the House State Affairs Commissioner still had more questions for Price just one day before the confirmation vote, holding a hearing late Tuesday afternoon.
Conflicting public testimony over her work history under former Gov. Bill Walker, plus questions over her resume and whether someone without a law enforcement background should hold her position prolonged the hearings.
Before her final hearing, Price met with the media and was flanked by five supporters from the Department of Public Safety who heaped praise on her four months on the job. Additionally, the Dunleavy administration posted paid ads on social media, calling for her approval.
Jason Brune, appointed to be commissioner for the Department of Environmental Conservation
Brune wants to get the environmental inspectors — known as Ocean Rangers — off the cruise ships, saying it represents over-regulation. Dunleavy has a bill seeking to repeal the program, which is funded by the cruise lines' passengers, but the bills have gone no where.
Brune’s efforts also comes at a time when a federal judge threatens to bar Carnival Corp. from U.S. ports for what she deemed were violations while the company was already on probation for illegal dumping. One such violation took place in Alaska waters last year.
Adam Crum, appointed to serve as the Health and Social Services commissioner
Committee chairs have criticized Crum for not attending hearings to defend the governor’s bills. Most recently lawmakers from both chambers want a better understanding of what Crum’s department is removing more than 4,700 seniors from a public assistance program for May and June.
“Commissioner appointments are always going to draw some consternation because commissioners have to carry out a governor’s policy, and this governor has certainly created no small stir in his policy world,” Coghill said. “So the commissioners are going to be called into question. [...] There are two things they will call into question: policy issues and credibility issues.
“Credibility issues, for me as the Rules Chairman, I’m OK with somebody calling credibility into question, but I’m going to ask them not to bring up personality conflict issues, mainly because that’s a he-said, she-said.”
A joint session between the Senate and House begins at 1 p.m. and lawmakers expect it to last several hours into the evening.
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