Legislature sends Alaska ferry reform bill to governor

A rainbow over Keku Strair near Kake is seen on May 6, 2021 from the deck of the ferry Matanuska. (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

Alaska lawmakers passed a bill to Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Wednesday that boosters say would ensure better long-term planning for the state-run ferry system.

The Alaska Marine Highway System has been struggling with deep spending cuts, an aging fleet and declining ridership as it runs fewer ships to coastal communities.

But it’s also come under fire for poor planning decisions that have kept its brand new Alaska-class ferries tied to the dock.

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, says that House Bill 63 would replace an existing advisory panel with a nine-member Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board tasked with crafting a short- and long-term vision.

Their job is to assess and suggest marine business and procurement practices, enhance revenue and reduce costs,” Stevens said during the Senate’s floor debate Tuesday.

The bill, written by Kodiak Republican House Speaker Louise Stutes, unanimously passed both the House and Senate. Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, says he’s concerned the ferry reform bill doesn’t go far enough to change a business-as-usual culture at the state Department of Transportation.

“We have an empire at DOT and we have got to break away from this mold of kind of doing things the way we have always done it,” Showers said. “And while this is a step in that direction, I’m still not convinced it does what we need it to do per our discussions and we’re going to continue to work on a greater plan.”

Four of the nine members of the board would be appointed by legislative leadership. That’s in stark contrast with a separate legislative proposal by Gov. Dunleavy that failed to gain traction in either the House or Senate.

The governor’s office earlier this month suggested that lawmakers appointing members to an executive board would violate the state constitution’s separation of powers.

But on Wednesday, Gov. Dunleavy’s spokesman Jeff Turner walked back that opposition, without saying whether the governor would sign or veto the bill.

“When the bill is transmitted to the governor’s office he will consider the legislation,” Turner told CoastAlaska via email.

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