By James Brooks
Alaska Beacon 

Some skepticism as Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposes biggest use of executive power in decades

 

February 1, 2024



In an unusual use of executive powers, Gov. Mike Dunleavy this month issued 12 executive orders abolishing state boards and granting new powers to the heads of state departments.

The orders, which account for almost 10% of all executive orders issued since statehood and are equal to the number of all executive orders issued in the previous 20 years, will automatically take effect in March unless the Alaska Legislature specifically disapproves of them in a joint vote of the House and Senate.

“We have never, in my experience, had 12 executive orders to deal with all at once,” said Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.

This week, after a legal review, members of the Alaska Senate are taking their first look at some of the governor’s orders. While some of the orders have been praised, others haven’t received a positive reception, and the industries affected by the orders are asking that they be revoked or reversed.

“Everybody’s kind of like, ‘We’ve got to get them to reconsider this,’” said Emily Foster, a member of the Board of Massage Therapists, one of the panels scheduled for dissolution.

Other boards earmarked for erasure include the boards governing barbers and hairdressers, the board regulating midwives, and the boards overseeing a state park in Southwest Alaska and a bald eagle preserve near Haines.

The office of the governor declined a request for an interview seeking an explanation for the orders and how they came about.

In a prepared written statement, Dunleavy communications director Jeff Turner said, “One of Governor Dunleavy’s priorities is to make state government as efficient and effective as possible. Several executive orders transfer functions from boards and commissions to the relevant state department, which is in the best interest of efficient administration.”

The 12 orders

No. 124 -The commissioner of fish and game has the authority to prohibit by regulation the live capture, possession, transport, or release of native or exotic game or their eggs.

No. 125 – The functions of the Alaska Council on Emergency Medical Services are transferred to the Department of Health, and the council is dissolved.

No. 126 – The functions of the Wood-Tikchik State Park Management Council are transferred to the Department of Natural Resources and the council is dissolved.

No. 127 – The Board of Massage Therapists is dissolved, and its authority goes to the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development.

No. 128 – The boards of the Alaska Energy Authority and the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority are split into two separate boards.

No. 129 – The Board of Barbers and Hairdressers is dissolved, and its authority goes to the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development.

No. 130 – The Board of Certified Direct-Entry Midwives is dissolved, and its authority goes to the Department of Health.

No. 131 – The members of the state ferry operations board that under a 2021 law are appointed by the speaker of the House of Representatives and Senate president will instead be appointed by the governor.

No. 132 – The Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve Advisory Council is dissolved, and its duties will be taken over by the Department of Natural Resources.

No. 133 – The Criminal Justice Information Advisory Board is dissolved, and its duties will be taken over by the Department of Public Safety.

No. 134 – The Recreation Rivers Advisory Board is dissolved, and its duties will be taken over by the Department of Natural Resources.

No. 135 – The Alaska Safety Advisory Council is dissolved, and its duties will be taken over by the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Article III, Section 23, of the Alaska Constitution allows the governor to “make changes in the organization of the executive branch” that are “necessary for efficient administration.”

The orders automatically become law 60 days after the start of the regular legislative session, unless the Legislature specifically passes a resolution with at least 31 of 60 legislators in a joint session of the House and Senate.

While executive orders can be far-reaching — Dunleavy used one to split the Department of Health and Social Services into two agencies in 2022 — they’re often obscure, even for people familiar with the workings of state government. Executive order No. 4, for example, has been lost and no copy exists, legislative records state.

Traditionally, governors have preferred to pass bills through the Legislature instead of using executive orders.

But the large number of orders this year may be connected to the state’s current political environment: With control of the Alaska Legislature divided and unlikely to pass more than a few dozen pieces of legislation, executive orders are a way for the governor to advance his priorities.

Professional licensing practices have frequently been criticized for limiting competition and blocking the development of new businesses, and eliminating them would be in line with the governor’s stated goals of growing Alaska’s economy.

That approach doesn’t come without controversy.

“It just doesn’t feel like it’s a well thought-out plan,” said Bethel Belisle, a member of the Board of Certified Direct-Entry Midwives.

While there are only about 40 licensed direct-entry midwives in the state, they delivered about 6% of Alaska’s newborns in 2022, according to the state’s annual vital statistics report.

In 2023, midwives regulated by the board delivered 528 babies, said Madi Grimes, the director of the Juneau Family Birth Center and former president of the Midwives Association of Alaska.

Grimes said the advantage of the board is that there are five people experienced with midwifery, keeping up with best practices and installing them by regulation as needed. If the board goes away, that duty will fall to state staff who might not have the same experience.

“I’m concerned that the (Department of Health) isn’t gonna be able to keep up with those end regulations, the way that a board can,” said Darcy Lucey of Wasilla, a member of the midwives board.

The board received two critical legislative audits — one in 2020 and the other in 2022 — but Belisle and Lucey said the problems identified in those reports have since been fixed.

“And so we’re kind of at a point where we’re back in the black,” Lucey said, noting that licensees pay the costs of the board and any needed investigations.

The board — as is the case with several other state boards and commissions — has struggled to keep full membership.

Only four of the board’s five seats are currently filled, but Grimes said it’s not from a lack of interest — she said she knows of people who have applied for the seat, but the governor’s office has not filled it.

“I would say it’s pretty unanimous across the board that our preference as a profession would be to keep our board,” Grimes said.

Other boards have different concerns but also oppose the governor’s executive orders.

“In general, it is not a good idea,” said Jill Motz, who served seven years on Alaska’s massage therapist board and has been urging licensees and members of the public to testify on the issue.

“Sometimes licensing can be seen as a barrier, but massage therapy is a unique field … it’s definitely a profession that needs some sort of peer oversight,” she said.

She offered one overlooked reason for that oversight: It can deter human trafficking, a major focus of the House Judiciary Committee this year.

In 2014, the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice made several arrests in Anchorage over a massage parlor that had been operating as a front for prostitution.

Afterward, the board enacted regulations intended to crack down on sex trafficking, with the state noting in 2019, “The legislature and the board understand there is a high potential of human and sex trafficking in the massage therapy industry.”

Foster, who joined the board in December, said that when she reviews license applications, she’s constantly looking for signs of a scam and is perpetually checking that someone has been trained at a reputable place.

The governor’s order calls for the board’s duties, including those reviews, to instead be conducted by the Department of Commerce.

Instead of volunteer board members, the work would be done by a paid professional.

“I don’t know who would be reviewing the applications, but it’s certainly not someone who’s been in the massage therapy industry for 22 years,” Foster said.

The governor’s orders haven’t been uniformly criticized. One of the most prominent orders involves splitting the boards of the Alaska Energy Authority and the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority into two separate organizations.

Currently, both billion-dollar state corporations are overseen by the same board. AEA executive director Curtis Thayer said that’s created a huge workload for the volunteer board.

With two boards, “I think what you’ll have is more of a laser focus,” Thayer said.

AEA recently received a $206 million federal infrastructure grant, and managing that will be a priority.

“I think it’s important for the board to help us with policy development, strategic planning and implementation, and also helping with resource allocation,” he said.

Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said she believes the board split is a good idea.

With all of the orders set to take effect in March, legislators have a limited window to gather testimony and analyze their effectiveness, Stevens said.

“As Sen. Giessel has told me several times, the clock is ticking. And she’s absolutely right about that, so we want to deal with these very quickly. We don’t want to see these become law without having a chance to thoroughly discuss them,” he said.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com.

 

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