On Tuesday, the Legislature got through a double heaping serving of confirmation votes. After the pandemic scuttled last year’s end-of-session routine, legislators returned for a roughly six-hour joint session to get through 186 appointments ranging from commissioners to members of the Board of Massage Therapists.
The most high-profile confirmation votes of the day like the appointment Attorney General Treg Taylor and Alaska Judicial Council member Kristie Babcock succeeded on narrow-to-wide margins after Republicans by and large stuck together to support the governor’s appointments. But opposition to three appointees that focused in on their potential harm to the very organizations and industries they were set to oversee and regulate was enough to amount to rejections.
The most resounding defeat was dealt to Board of Fish appointee Abe Williams. Williams faced much opposition over his current employment at the deeply controversial Pebble Limited Partnership, though defenders arguing that the Board of Fish doesn’t have any direct oversight on the Pebble Mine. But perhaps more damning for his nomination were his proposals to open up the Bristol Bay fishery to larger fishing vessels and issue more permits. Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, urged legislators to focus in on those policy proposals, arguing that they would favor wealthy Outside investors over Alaskans.
“Mr. Williams has advocated for larger boats and for additional permits. Those policies, if they’re adopted, would give people that have the money (an advantage),” he said. “We would see those individuals with deep pockets be the ones to get the larger vessels to capture more of the resource, and the people in the villages would not have the resources to invest in and buy those larger boats. This primary issue, I think, is an issue for Alaska. All the other issues we need to put aside, we need to protect fisheries for Alaskan fishermen all over this state.”
The final vote was 41N-18Y, one of the most resounding defeats of an appointment in recent memory.
The vote was praised from groups involved in the Bristol Bay fishing industry, who’ve been building the case against Williams for more than two years thanks to the pandemic drawing it out.
“Quyana to the 41 members of the Alaska Legislature who voted against Mr. Williams appointment,” United Tribes of Bristol Bay Board President Robert Heyano, a commercial fisherman and former Board of Fish member. “Bristol Bay has been clear that we must protect the pristine salmon habitat that produces the world’s greatest wild salmon returns and supports a subsistence way of life for our people. Today we appreciated seeing lawmakers stand with us and support Bristol Bay’s people, clean water and wild salmon.”
John Cox’s appointment to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board was rejected on a 30Y-29N vote (he needed 31).
Several legislators spoke out against Cox, arguing that his policy proposals that would seek to take away liquor licenses from holders who aren’t actively using them would hurt the industry and undercut people’s investment in the limited licenses. Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, said Cox had “no empathy” for the industry and those who’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars in buying these limited licenses. She argued that if they want to make such a drastic change in policy, it should be done through a more thoughtful process that doesn’t erase people’s investments.
On Mental Health
Annette Gwalthney-Jones’ appointment to the Mental Health Trust Authority Board of Trustees was rejected on a 29Y-30N vote.
It was a battle over Facebook posts on this one with Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, and others bringing up a series of inflammatory posts that, frankly, ranged from pedestrian conservative posts to a far more alarming post that likened Harvard students seeking to revoke some Trump ally’s degrees to “how Hitler went after the Jews.” Opponents to Gwalthney-Jones said she was particularly unfit for service on the Mental Health Trust Authority Board of Trustees, saying that her divisive language and political positions would undermine the authority’s work.
At one point, Wasilla Republican Sen. David Wilson objected to Wielechowski even reading off the material, which Wielechowski said proved his point.
It turned into a largely ugly debate with several far-right Republicans saying they saw no big deal with the posts. Homer Republican Rep. Sarah Vance claimed at one point, “Just because it might not be the most prudent thing to say, it doesn’t mean other people don’t agree with it.”
So will Senator Hoffman lead the charge to rescind permit stacking – a cancerous idea that originated in Bristol Bay and expanded elsewhere in the state, primarily to the benefit of the wealthy individuals who can afford to buy a second permit?