The most talked-about vote of the week in the Alaska Legislature began with talk of “a witch hunt” and ended with a “yippee-ki-yay.”
Legislators gathered in a joint session of the House and Senate on Wednesday to either confirm or deny Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s choices for commissioners of the major state departments. All week, the most anticipated debate was about Amanda Price, the governor’s pick for Department of Public Safety commissioner.
The Legislature voted to confirm Price — and the rest of Dunleavy’s appointees — but not without heated debate.
Price has been the target of criticism for a large portion of the session, with legislators pointing out her complete lack of law enforcement experience, her somewhat mysterious departure from the previous administration and her inconsistent comments to lawmakers during interviews this session.
Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, spoke during Wednesday’s joint session and said Price had been treated unfairly.
“We had people walking around that had files of negative information about Amanda Price, and then they would present that information and it would be what I would call a witch hunt,” Micciche said. “I don’t know how you could call it anything else.”
Micciche and Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, both suggested that people might have been hypercritical of Price because she’s a woman and is an unconventional pick for this job. Supporters of hers on the floor Wednesday said she brings a new energy and a new perspective to the job that could help revitalize the department.
The Senate was split on whether to confirm Price, with 10 senators voting to confirm and 10 voting to deny. Senate President Cathy Giessel, Senate Majority Leader Mia Costello and Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich were all among those who voted against Price. The House wasn’t as close, as the body voted 24-15 to confirm Price.
The strangest vote of the day came from Wasilla Republican Sen. David Wilson, who said “yippee-ki-yay” instead of saying “yes” when asked to vote on Price. It provided a moment of comic relief in a tense, hot House chambers.
Long debates over appointees
Four of Dunleavy’s appointees spurred long debates on the floor Wednesday, but all were eventually confirmed.
Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum was confirmed by the same margin as Price was — 34-25 — and the debate over his appointment was even longer than Price’s. Like Price, detractors of Crum’s were critical of his lack of experience. He had been the executive vice president of Northern Industrial Training, LLC, but he now faces the task of running one of the state’s biggest and most complex departments.
Critics also noted that under Crum’s watch, the process for having a private company take over the Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API) attracted attention for not going through a competitive bidding process, and some seniors in the state have had their benefits cut off due to part of the Senior Benefit Program running out of money.
Supporters of Crum’s, including Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, spoke in favor of Crum and pointed out that API was already in bad shape and that funding for the Senior Benefit Program was determined by the previous Legislature.
Jason Brune was Dunleavy’s choice for commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation. Brune formerly worked as a spokesperson for Anglo American, a company that sought to get the controversial Pebble Mine project up and running near Bristol Bay.
Critics of Brune’s — and there have been many during his confirmation hearings — asserted that someone who spent so much time advocating for a large mining project wouldn’t possibly be unbiased when making permitting decisions.
Proponents of Brune’s have said he carries himself with great professionalism and has a great deal of experience in the field. He was confirmed, 35-24.
Attorney General Kevin Clarkson was easily confirmed by a 40-19 vote, but spurred more than half an hour of debate. Legislators argued back and forth about whether Clarkson was vigorously working for his clients or whether he was going out of his way to pursue cases that pushed a very conservative agenda.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.