Legislature sues Gov. Dunleavy for ignoring law on appointments

Something might be going on in there.The Alaska State Capitol building as photographed in 2010. (Photo by Kimberly Vardeman/Creative Commons)

While Gov. Mike Dunleavy was announcing a light-on-details plan to split the Department of Health and Social Services this afternoon, the Alaska Legislative Council approved a lawsuit challenging the governor’s refusal to follow the law on his appointments to boards and commissions.

The panel of senators and representatives voted 11-1 to approve the lawsuit after Dunleavy sent letters to the Legislature indicating he would ignore the law passed by the Legislature and signed by him that set all of Dunleavy’s unapproved appointments to boards and commissions as well as his pick for Revenue commissioner to expire on Dec. 16.

This is the second time the Legislature has sued the governor. It filed a lawsuit after the 2019 session that challenged Dunleavy’s decision to unilaterally withhold some education funding from school districts, an issue that a Superior Court judge decided in the Legislature’s favor.

The latest issue stems from the Legislature’s rush to wrap up the legislative session as the coronavirus pandemic loomed over the state. Typically, the Legislature will hold a joint confirmation session to review the governor’s appointments but gathering all 60 legislators on the House floor for what is typically an all-day meeting was scrapped as a bad idea during a pandemic.

Instead, legislators included a clause that allowed the governor’s unconfirmed appointments to continue past the end of the session when they would normally be considered rejected if not brought up for a vote. The legislation allowed them to continue to serve through Dec. 16 in hopes that the Legislature would have an opportunity to reconvene later this year.

Under the law, those appointments would be considered rejected but would be able to be reappointed once the new Legislature convenes in January 2021.

Facing internal struggles over policy issues and pandemic concerns that made mustering the necessary votes for the Legislature to return to session on its own impossible, legislative leadership reached out to Dunleavy asking that he call a special session so they could hold the hearing as well as renew the state’s disaster declaration.

Dunleavy refused and has since extended the emergency, on dubious legal grounds, twice.

Both moves raised concerns with legislators, who said the governor has continually ignored the Legislature and acted unilaterally with tenuous legality.

“I have concerns with the Legislature being bypassed time and again,” House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, told the Associated Press of Dunleavy’s intentions last week.

Much of the discussion on the Legislative Council was held during executive session, which is typical when the panel is considering legal action, and nothing beyond the vote was held in public.

Following the meeting, though, Legislative Council Chair Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, told the Anchorage Daily News that a prime concern is that any action taken by the governor’s appointees could be called challenged.

“Any decisions made by these people during that interim period could be recalled or made void. I think they should be very careful what all boards and commissions do in that one-month time,” Stevens said.

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