JUNEAU — One of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s picks for the University of Alaska Board of Regents was rejected by the Legislature on Tuesday in a narrow 31-29 vote.
Bethany Marcum — the director of the conservative group Alaska Policy Forum, which has long advocated for cuts to public education funding — was the only one of Dunleavy’s appointees to cabinet positions, boards and commissions to be rejected by the Legislature in a joint session that included reviews of nearly 80 positions.
In the House, all 21 Republicans, along with Utqiagvik independent Josiah Patkotak, supported her confirmation. In the Senate, four Republicans joined all nine Democrats in opposing her confirmation to the Board of Regents, which oversees the university’s operations.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel declined to comment on her decision to reject Marcum, as did Nikiski Republican Sen. Jesse Bjorkman.
Marcum in 2019 championed massive budget cuts proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy that included a 40% slash to the state’s spending on the university system.
Her support for cuts to spending on state schools and universities was a central point brought up by opponents of Marcum’s confirmation.
“It is through my research that I’ve come to recognize that Ms. Marcum is neither a champion of our public education nor of our public university system,” said Sen. Löki Tobin, an Anchorage Democrat.
The Republicans who spoke in favor of Marcum’s confirmation cited her past support for cuts to the state budget as a potential asset.
“We don’t want a board that is all homogenous. We want diversity of opinion on our boards. We might want a fiscal conservative on the board to provide a counterpoint when the Board of Regents is discussing fiscal issues,” said Rep. Kevin McCabe, a Big Lake Republican. “We can’t just have yes men.”
Rep. Andrew Gray, an Anchorage Democrat who voted against her confirmation, said “someone who would support that kind of shrinking of the system doesn’t see it as essential to the future of our great state.”
“I do not believe that we can trust someone who went against the Alaska Constitution twice as ruled by the Alaska Supreme Court,” said Gray, referring to her role in promoting the redistricting maps deemed gerrymandered.
Marcum did not immediately respond to a phone call requesting comment.
A Dunleavy spokesman did not respond when asked if the governor intended to renominate Marcum to the redistricting board, from which Marcum resigned earlier this year to pursue the seat on the UA Board of Regents. The seat she previously occupied on the redistricting board remains vacant.
“The governor’s office will make an announcement when a new nominee for the board of regents is selected,” spokesperson Jeff Turner said in an email.
Lawmakers raised concerns over several other nominees, including Brett Huber, who was up for confirmation to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, an agency charged with overseeing oil and gas development in the state.
Huber was confirmed in a 34-26 vote after some lawmakers raised concern over his previous partisan activities, including as a top campaign aide and staffer to Dunleavy. His work for an outside campaign group funded by the Republican Governors Association is part of an ongoing complaint before the Alaska Public Offices Commission brought by two watchdog groups.
“My concern is that Mr. Huber’s career in politics had largely been in activist position of partisan nature — from campaigns to being an advisor to the governor,” said Rep. Sara Hannan, a Juneau Democrat. “But this position is not to advise the governor. This position is to serve Alaska’s interests in oil and gas oversight. I don’t believe that Mr. Huber has the background to serve us well in that.”
Several Republicans spoke in support of Huber’s nomination. Rep. Tom McKay, an Anchorage Republican, said he has “complete faith that Mr. Huber can perform well in this role.”
“In my role as House Resources chairman I’ve had several interactions with Mr. Huber already in that position, and I found him to be highly qualified and a very quick study,” said McKay.
Of the 26 lawmakers who opposed Huber’s nomination, most were Democrats or independents. But three Republicans also voted against his confirmation, including Giessel, Sen. Bert Stedman of Sitka and Rep. David Eastman of Wasilla.
Several Democrats and independent lawmakers also opposed the reconfirmation of James Fields, who chairs the state education board, citing his recent actions in advancing a board resolution to ban the participation of transgender girls in girls’ school sports without first accepting public testimony on the topic.
“His recent actions have caused me significant consternation,” said Tobin, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “The state board of education that day adopted a nonbinding resolution which circumvented a very well established public policy process, and please make no mistake — this nonbinding resolution has now been considered public policy.”
Both the state Department of Education and Early Development and the Alaska School Activities Association have said they are working on developing regulation changes to conform with the board’s nonbinding resolution.
Fields, who has served on the state board of education for a decade, was reconfirmed in a 36-21 vote. Sixteen Democrats and independents in the House minority voted against his confirmation, along with five Senate Democrats.
The only commissioner appointee to receive pushback from lawmakers was Adam Crum, who previously led the state health department and now heads the Department of Revenue.
Five lawmakers voted against Crum’s confirmation to lead the revenue department — one of the highest-profile department heads in state government — citing a backlog in processing applications for food benefits that occurred under his leadership of the former Department of Health and Social Services.
“I cannot in good conscience support this commissioner moving to another job for the state of Alaska after leaving tens of thousands of Alaskans behind and hungry through the winter,” said Hannan.
Crum’s supporters cited what they said was his successful handling of the pandemic, along with his deference to staff members, in backing his nomination. Crum has degrees in public health and psychology.
“I think we can all look back over the last several year and realize that the COVID issue hit the state and the country by storm and by surprise. I think Mr. Crum did a good job dealing with that,” said Stedman, who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee. “I think he’ll work out fine as a commissioner of revenue. We all know that’s not necessarily his strongest background, but he has good support from his staff. He listens to his staff in consultations and makes a decision and brings it to the finance committees for further review. That’s about all we could ask of a good commissioner.”