Legislators running out of time to stop overhaul of Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board, discussing executive order this week

Alaska lawmakers have less than a month, until March 16, to vote down any of the dozen executive orders introduced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy at the start of the legislative session. One of those would replace the existing makeup of the Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board with the governor’s appointees.

Legislators have begun discussing and will take public comment on this particular order this week.

Dunleavy’s executive order 131, would give the governor the power to appoint all nine members of the marine highway operations board. Currently, four board members are appointed by the House and the Senate leadership. None of the members are subject to confirmation by the Legislature.

Ryan Anderson is the commissioner of the state’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.  He told legislators during a Senate Transportation Committee hearing Tuesday that the executive order will not change the overall number of members nor the requirements to be a board member.

“The governor, myself, and I believe all of Alaska, would like to see this operations’ board, you know, contribute meaningfully to improvements and services and reliability to the Alaska Marine Highway System,” Anderson said. “We feel that the dynamics of the board have prevented it from performing many of the statutory duties.”

DOT Commissioner Ryan Anderson spoke before the Senate Transportation Committee on Feb. 20, 2024. (Eric Stone/Alaska Public Media)

State officials also expressed concern over what they say is the board’s lack of strategic planning for the long term future of the marine highway system. State Rep. Louise Stutes, a Republican from Kodiak, originally proposed the bill that created the Marine Highway Operations Board three years ago to help address this issue. Since being established, the board has met 24 times, between 2022 and today. The Marine Highway Operations Board replaced the former and somewhat ineffective Marine Transportation Advisory Board.

Anderson said that allowing the governor to appoint all members of the board will ideally make the Alaska Marine Highway System more efficient overall. When he first announced his executive orders, Gov. Dunleavy said in a statement, the reason for all 12 is to, “make state government as efficient and effective as possible.”

Alaska Department of Law attorney Parker Patterson also participated in Tuesday’s committee hearing. He says it’s the department’s opinion that the governor should have the power to appoint members to the board, as those confirmations fall under the executive branch.

But some of the legislators on the transportation committee, like Senator Loki Tobin a Democrat from Anchorage, were hesitant to support removing the public’s involvement from the board process by taking the appointment power away from leadership in the House and Senate and giving it solely to the governor.

“I could understand if we were moving toward a confirmation-able process so that there could be more public input, more opportunity for the public to engage; instead of moving toward where it’s all held within the executive branch,” Tobin said.

Despite the executive order from Governor Mike Dunleavy unveiled on January 16, it’s possible that the Legislature could vote to prevent this and other board changes from taking effect this summer on July 1, 2024. However, legislators only have 60 days from when the executive order was announced, or until mid-March, to call a joint session and obtain the majority vote.

A public comment period is scheduled for Thursday afternoon at 1:30pm on Feb. 22 for folks to weigh in on the executive order. Alaskans can contact their local legislative information office (LIO) for more details.

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