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Legislators reach into Labor Department to cut appointees

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 25, 2015

JUNEAU -- A North Pole Republican's budget plan to fire a pair of Democrats in the administration of Gov. Bill Walker drew objections of micro-managing in a House committee hearing Wednesday morning, though it nonetheless moved forward.

Recommendations from a budget subcommittee chaired by Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, take the unusual step of choosing specific positions to cut from the state labor department. Joe Thomas, a former Democratic state senator from Fairbanks, holds one, while Zack Fields, the former communications director for the Alaska Democratic Party, holds another.

A third position targeted belongs to Anna Latham, who used to work in the office of a Kenai Republican, Rep. Kurt Olson.

At Wednesday's hearing, Olson, who was first elected in 2004, said he could only remember one other instance when the Legislature identified individual jobs for elimination.

"I can't recall seeing it ever being used as a management tool by the committee," he said. "Might be better for the commissioner to be given a lump sum, and see if she can match that lump sum with additional cuts."

Olson nonetheless voted for the plan. It passed 5 to 2, with the committee's two Democrats opposed. The budget goes next to the full House Finance Committee.

Wilson refused to accept changes to her plan in Wednesday's meeting, telling one committee member, Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks, he had missed a deadline last week to submit amendments.

Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, criticized that approach later Wednesday in a speech on the House floor in which he also objected to a similar decision Tuesday night by a budget subcommittee on education chaired by Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla. Kito said in an interview afterward the proposed firings in the labor department were "vindictive.

"It's inappropriate for the Legislature to be targeting individuals," he said.

Thomas and Fields were both hired as part of Walker's new administration. Walker is a longtime Republican who was elected in November after dropping his party registration and merging his campaign with Democrat Byron Mallott, who is now the lieutenant governor.

Thomas was named as one of two deputies to Labor Commissioner Heidi Drygas, a former attorney for a labor group, while Fields is a special assistant to Drygas.

Republicans have grumbled about Democratic appointments like those, and Fields is a high-profile target who was known in his party spokesman job for issuing a constant, colorful stream of press releases aimed at GOP candidates.

Officials at the labor department didn't return calls Wednesday.

The three proposed firings would save about $200,000 in spending from the state's general fund, according to committee budget documents.

In an interview Wednesday, Wilson said she didn't look at the party affiliations of the people in the jobs proposed to be cut by her committee, adding she didn't know anything about Fields' past work. Instead, the positions were chosen because they didn't directly help the labor department fulfill its mission of "putting people back to work," she said.

Wilson said the department doesn't need two deputy commissioners, and added it was picking "either one" to cut. And she said the labor department can also do without Latham's position, in which she serves as the liaison to the Legislature.

"I don't think we need liaisons," Wilson said. "We need to start talking directly to our legislators."

If the Democrats object to the cuts, she said, they can try to change them when the proposal goes to the full House Finance Committee.

Another Republican on Wilson's subcommittee, Anchorage Rep. Charisse Millett, said the cuts were about "the top-heavy administration in the commissioner's office" in the labor department.

"I don't think it was personal to the people," she said.

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