Gov. Mike Dunleavy has vetoed a bill by Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, intended to restrain the ability of Alaska governors to pay state employees more than allowed by the state salary scale and to hire workers for “temporary” duties not designated by the Legislature.
During the legislative session, lawmakers said they believed the ability to appoint so-called “temporary exempt” employees allowed governors to hire favored Alaskans without regard to merit, effectively creating “political employees” without oversight by the Legislature.
House Bill 48 would have eliminated temporary exempt jobs and would have repealed a provision passed by the Legislature in 2013 that allows the executive branch to increase salaries for particular state positions without the input of the Legislature.
In his veto message to lawmakers, Dunleavy said he disagrees with the elimination of that second power, which is "a valuable tool” that allows state agencies “to recruit and hire individuals with specialized skills or experience.”
To Wilson, he provided a list of 40 positions filled outside the state’s normal salary schedule that would have been affected. (A grandfather clause would have prevented the salaries of sitting employees from being changed.) The highest-paid person on that list is a Department of Transportation division director who earns $198,732 per year, plus benefits — a salary higher than that of the governor, his commissioners or recently departed OMB director Donna Arduin.
In a written statement, the governor said, “On one hand, the bill fixed a significant problem. On the other hand, it eliminated a tool that is used to address the State’s ability to recruit and retain employees of the highest level of qualifications and experience. As I am not able to partially veto a bill, I have committed to working with Rep. Wilson in the future to address the use or creation of temporary or special positions.”
Wilson was disappointed by the decision to veto. She said she has been working since the Walker administration to close what she sees as a series of loopholes in state hiring policy, only to be stymied by an administration that is taking advantage of those loopholes.
“I think it’s been abused. I think that’s why he’s fighting for it,” she said of the governor.
Asked about the governor’s veto message, she said the administration had a chance to raise concerns but didn’t.
“If they didn’t like the provision that was put in, where were they in April?” she said.
House Bill 48 had broad support from lawmakers. It passed the House 37-1 and the Senate 19-0. The section removing the executive branch’s ability to increase salaries unilaterally was inserted by the House Finance Committee at the end of March, more than a month before its final Senate passage at the start of May.
The Legislature has the opportunity to override the governor’s veto. Under the Alaska Constitution, when lawmakers next convene (either in special session or in the regular session that starts Jan. 21), they will have five days to vote for an override. If they do not, the governor’s decision is final.
Dunleavy’s veto marks the first time he has used his executive power to negate a piece of legislation instead of an individual budget item.
Wilson said she and the Legislature have never been able to precisely determine the number of employees hired as temporary exempt. Those positions do not typically show up in budget documents, and Wilson said she has been trying since 2017 to obtain an accounting. During House and Senate testimony this year, an official from the Alaska Department of Administration was also unable to provide a number but did provide a four-page list with a partial account.
“I think it’s inappropriate. What the governor does in terms of spending with public money should be transparent,” said Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage and one of the lawmakers who supported HB 48.
Wilson said HB 48 would not prevent a governor from hiring the people he wants: It merely forces the governor to go through a standard public procedure.
She said she was frustrated by the way governors use the “temporary” exemption in hiring law for positions that are anything but temporary. One such position was created in 1989. Others, according to the partial list provided to the Legislature, were created in the 1990s and early 2000s.
When it comes to a veto override, Wilson said she has not talked to members of her House Republican minority caucus. A spokesman for the Senate majority said the leaders of that body have not yet discussed the topic.