EDITORIAL: Should any governor get to wield this much power?

In many ways, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s tenure as the head of Alaska’s executive branch of government has been marked by paradoxes. The governor is a self-professed fiscal conservative who has proposed massive spending increases on supersized Permanent Fund dividend checks, leading to deficits of a billion dollars or more in some years. He attempted unsuccessfully to drastically shrink the university system. He’s for small government when it comes to resource development permitting, but big government when it comes to regulating abortion or gender politics. And, as demonstrated by his raft of administrative orders in January related to a dozen state boards and commissions, he abhors bureaucracy — unless it’s a bureaucracy under his direct control.

To be clear, paradox isn’t necessarily the same thing as hypocrisy, at least when it comes to the governor’s administrative orders. Gov. Dunleavy has been consistent throughout his two terms in pushing for expanding the power of the executive branch, to the extent that it has led to multiple lawsuits from the Legislature, whose members feel the governor is unfairly treading on their lawmaking turf.

Whether that attempted consolidation of power is a net positive or a liability depends on who you ask, and often how they feel about this governor in particular. Americans — and Alaskans — have a healthy skepticism of giving government too much power, especially when it’s concentrated under the control of a single figure (we did away with the monarchy, after all, and not to just replace King George III with a local governor). On the other hand, Alaskans also rightly abhor bureaucracy. If operations can be streamlined without harm to the public, why bother with deliberative bodies whose primary function appears to be gatekeeping?

It’s rarely a black-and-white call. One of Dunleavy’s January administrative orders would dissolve the Board of Massage Therapists, a volunteer group for a relatively niche profession. On one hand, perhaps that move — transferring the board’s administrative authority to the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development — will streamline decisions about professional licensing or issues related to the profession. On the other hand, current and former members of the board point to a valuable service it provides at no expense to the state — monitoring for signs of worker exploitation and human trafficking, a particular problem within the massage community and one that state legislators have pledged to combat.

Ironically, one of the changes Dunleavy proposes — creating separate boards to oversee the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority and the Alaska Energy Authority, instead of one board that oversees both of the incredibly powerful state agencies — may be unconstitutional, as it may require legislation. Whatever legislators think of Dunleavy’s other board dissolutions, they should see their way clear to advancing a bill that deals with that issue, as it’s clear that AIDEA and AEA’s combined duties are too numerous for a single group to manage. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as well as AEA head Curtis Thayer, agree that the board split is a good idea, so that seems like an easy win for all concerned.

One board left unaddressed by the flurry of administrative orders could benefit from a better check-and-balance system — the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation’s board of trustees. As it stands, the governor appoints all members of the board, and its members don’t face any confirmation process in the Legislature. The potential pitfalls with such a lack of accountability should be obvious to any Alaskan with an interest in how those trustees manage the $77 billion in the state’s landmark rainy-day fund. Under current rules, the trustees could decide to pursue a green agenda or even invest in $10 billion of Beanie Babies, and — short of a protracted lawsuit with an uncertain outcome — the only way they might lose their positions or reverse the decision would be if the governor decided to give them the heave-ho. Gov. Jay Hammond and legislators who established the Fund with the state’s newfound oil windfall clearly didn’t foresee the governance challenges it would present, or they would have built in better safeguards themselves. But with so much on the line, Alaska needs a better guarantee that the trustees are accountable to Alaskans outside the governor’s office.

Balancing a needed decentralization of power on one hand against bureaucratic bloat on the other is a tricky business. In an ideal world, we’d strive for the former without creating the latter. This should be the central question as the Legislature discusses the governor’s administrative orders. For the most part, it’s clear that there is little actual risk in concentrating power in the executive by approving the governor’s executive orders in the name of efficiency. Conversely, oversight of the much more important Permanent Fund is far too concentrated in one person and legislative confirmation of trustee appointments is needed. Whatever legislators feel about their level of trust in this governor, they should consider that these changes will be in effect under every future governor, too — so they should make their decision without regard to the particular person who occupies the office space on the third floor of the State Capitol Building.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.