Legislature confirms Dunleavy’s cabinet after bitter confirmation fight

Alaska State CapitolThe Alaska State Capitol as photographed in March 2017. (Photo by gillfoto/Creative Commons)

Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy saw his entire cabinet confirmed by the Alaska Legislature today, despite concerns raised about multiple appointees.

The most contentious cabinet members included Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price, Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum and Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jason Brune.

Many of the remaining members were approved unanimously or near-unanimously.

“While the Legislature and I may not always see eye to eye, I’m pleased they recognize that a Governor deserves the opportunity to put in place his or her own team,” Dunleavy said in a prepared statement. “Collectively, we have assembled a remarkable group of Alaskans – from all walks of life – all focused on tackling the important issues before us.”

The Legislature meets in joint session every year to consider the confirmation of the governor’s cabinet as well as boards and commission members.

It takes 31 votes in any combination of House and Senate members to confirm an appointee, a bar that came close for a handful of the cabinet appointments.

Here’s a rundown of the arguments from the contentious votes:

Attorney General Kevin Clarkson

Opponents of Kevin Clarkson focused largely on the controversial cases he’s litigated. He’s fought in favor of anti-abortion lawsuits, represented landlords that wanted to bar LGBT renters and against transgender issues.

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, said some might see him as a defender of religious liberties, but he said Clarkson’s defense of the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s policy that would effectively bar people non-Christian religions from giving invocations is not an example of religious liberty.

“I’m Jewish, under that law I couldn’t do it,” he said. “That is not religious liberty, it is absolutely the opposite.”

The objections didn’t stop with objections over “religious liberty,” but also conservative political issues like an attempt to stop the “Troopergate” investigation into former Gov. Sarah Palin and has currently penned legal opinions that would undercut the Legislature’s long-standing ability to forward fund certain priorities.

Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, said he’s looking for an attorney general who would be able to act independent of political influence of the administration and give good, legally sound advice. He said issues relating to the governor’s refusal to appoint a judge and the brewing fight over the forward-funding issues proved otherwise.

Sen. John Coghill, a North Pole Republican who’s one of the leading anti-abortion legislators, said Clarkson would keep the Legislature on its toes.

Clarkson was confirmed 40-19.

Department of Public Safety Commission Amanda Price

Weeks of confirmation hearings to investigate a slew of rumors and claims against Amanda Price left many opponents feeling that she had regularly lied or misrepresented the facts, but it ultimately wasn’t enough to defeat her appointment to the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety.

Much of that inquiry was led by Rep. Zack Fields, who chairs the House State Affairs Committee. He listed off issues like inconsistencies about how her time with the Walker administration came to an end and multiple other issues.

“Based on Commissioner Price’s consistent record of deception before the Legislature this year,” he said. “Commissioner of Public Safety is an extraordinarily important and incredibly powerful position. The commissioner is Alaska’s top law enforcement official. Unblemished integrity should be a prerequisite for this job.”

Rep. Laddie Shaw, R-Anchorage, had raised some concerns about Price’s qualifications during the process, particularly about her lack of law enforcement experience. Shaw had previously worked with training and approving troopers and said that Price wouldn’t have likely passed muster but said ultimately that she had the support of the rank-and-file members, which he said isn’t easy.

He said that earned his support.

“She must be doing something right,” he said.

Others said concerns about her qualifications were essentially a “witch hunt,” as Sen. Peter Micciche said, and others questioned whether she would get such scrutiny if she were a man.

Price was confirmed in one of the narrower votes of the day, with a 10-10 split in the Senate, but a 24-15 vote in the House carried it for her. The final vote was 34-25.

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jason Brune

The public backlash to Jason Brune, a former employee of a company pushing for Pebble Mine, probably ranked among the highest of any of Dunleavy’s appointees. Legislators opposing his confirmation said Brune has regularly sided with industry over the department’s mission to protect the public and environment from pollution and other harm.

Most of the talk focused around the Department of Environmental Conservation’s recent decision to reclassify how it tests for PFAS pollutants. The pollutants are used in firefighting efforts, particularly at airports, and have recently cropped up in drinking water near the Fairbanks International Airport, requiring the state to foot the bill to get homes hooked up to piped water sources.

The actions of the department would essentially prevent future people from qualifying from such treatment.

Supporters defended his positions, saying he would listen to science and advice of the staff.

Brune was confirmed 35-24.

Department of Health and Social Service Commissioner Adam Crum

Adam Crum faced significant opposition due to his involvement with the controversial privatization of the Alaska Psychiatric Institute through an emergency no-bid contract to a private prison company as well as the abrupt ending of the Senior Benefits Program to more than 4,000 seniors because the program ran out of money before the end of the fiscal year.

Reps. Ivy Spohnholz and Tiffany Zulkosky, who have both lead the Legislature’s investigation into the contract, spoke at length against his confirmation. Spohnholz said a slew of questions regarding the privatization, which could put the state on the hook with a 5-year contract, were never answered.

“We don’t have the answers to these questions because they rushed this through the dead of night,” she said.

Zulkosky also said Crum, who had previously worked at a family-owned Northern Industrial Training, didn’t have the necessary experience in the health care field to oversee the state’s largest department.

“There’s no comparison between his qualifications and the roles and responsibilities of the DHSS commissioner,” she said.

Many Republicans came to Crum’s defense, saying that his work certainly did transfer and qualify.

Crum was confirmed on a vote of 34-25.

What’s left

The Legislature still has to work its way through dozens of appointments to boards and commissions. Here are some of the highlights as of 6:40 p.m.

  • Bob Griffin, a member of the conservative Alaska Policy Forum, was confirmed to the Board of Education on a 41-18 vote following resurfacing of allegations that he followed around busses after an unsuccessful run for Anchorage School Board.
  • A confirmation vote on Karl Johnstone, a controversial appointee to the Board of Fish, was tabled after Rep. Spohnholz raised allegations that Johnstone had harassed female employees of the board. The move allows the committees to reopen hearings to vet the claims and hear from Johnstone.
  • Board of Game appointee Al Barrette was confirmed to the Board of Game. Barrette had once been rejected by the Legislature to appointment to the board based on a potential conflict of interest between his trap-making business and the Board of Game’s votes. He had since sold the business, which allowed many members to hold their noses and vote for a member who’s proposed some… interesting changes on the board like allowing the use of snow machines to chase wolves. He was confirmed 42-14.
  • The day’s lone rejection, so far, was of Fairbanks resident Vivian Stiver to the Alaska Marijuana Control Board on a 30-29 vote. She needed 31 votes. Stiver faced staunch opposition because she had backed two voter initiatives that would have banned already-operating marijuana businesses from the city of Fairbanks and the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

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