Larry Persily

Wrangell Sentinel 

Gov. Mike Dunleavy wants to create a new state ferry system advisory board with one state official and 10 public members to replace an existing advisory panel, similar to a separate proposal from coastal lawmakers. The difference being that the legislative proposal would protect board members from dismissal by a governor, while under Dunleavy’s bill, the members would “serve at the pleasure” of the governor.

The governor would appoint the entire board under Dunleavy’s bill, while the Legislature would name almost half the panel under the measure sponsored by lawmakers.

Under either bill, the panel would advise the state Department of Transportation on ferry system operations, including long-term planning.

“Hopefully, the Legislature will put some teeth into it,” said Robert Venables, of Haines, chair of the existing Marine Transportation Advisory Board, which was created under Gov. Frank Murkowski 18 years ago.

Venables would prefer members of the advisory panel be protected from removal every time a new governor takes office to guard against the “revolving door” of changing political opinions on how to run the ferries.

The Alaska Marine Highway System “is in worse shape now than it’s ever been in its history,” Venables said, acknowledging the advisory board has been unable to stop the deterioration.

A steep budget cut in Dunleavy’s first year in office significantly reduced ferry service to coastal communities, while passenger travel and revenue have been in decline for years.

“As we continue efforts to restructure and modernize the Alaska Marine Highway System, it is imperative the long-term operations and finances are addressed,” the governor said in a prepared statement introducing his bill. “Our goal remains the same, to create a more reliable and efficient Marine Highway System to serve coastal Alaska for years to come.”

The governor’s proposal would create the Alaska Marine Highway System Operation and Planning Board and direct the Department of Transportation to consult with the panel in developing a short-term and long-term plan for the ferry system.

The legislative proposal would call it the Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board, with a similar consultation role.

“The governor’s bill doesn’t do enough in terms of making real, needed change in terms of management of the Marine Highway System,” said Ketchikan Rep. Dan Ortiz, who also represents Wrangell.

Ortiz said he would prefer more independence for the advisory board and “real authority to make changes.”

The representative is co-sponsor of House Bill 63, along with House Speaker Louise Stutes, of Kodiak, that would protect members of the advisory board from dismissal by each new governor.

The bill was scheduled for a public hearing at 1:30 p.m. on March 18 in the House Transportation Committee. It is the bill’s second hearing in the committee. Lawmakers have yet to schedule a hearing on the governor’s proposal, House Bill 134, or its identical Senate bill.

The governor’s bill does not solve the problem of political interference with the ferry system, said Sitka Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. “There is still a much more politicized aspect” to Dunleavy’s proposal, the legislator said. “It’s kind of like rearranging the deck chairs,” without saving the ship, he said.

Though the Legislature is about halfway through the session, Kreiss-Tomkins said it’s still possible lawmakers could approve a new advisory panel with expanded authority this year.