Legislators unlikely to block split of state's largest department

 


JUNEAU (AP) — A proposal from Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration to split in half the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services — the state’s largest department — appears likely to take effect later this year. House and Senate leaders said it does not appear there are enough votes to block the move.

Reorganization of the department, with more than 3,200 positions, has been billed as a way to improve operations and delivery of services. The proposal came through an executive order from the governor, and rejection of the order would require a joint session and support from 31 of the Legislature’s 60 members.

The Anchorage Daily News reported on March 1 that opponents of the split say the effort has been rushed and that people served by the agency haven't been adequately consulted. The department's commissioner has disputed those assertions.

The proposal has received support from medical advisory boards and a group representing hospitals and nursing homes.

The Legislature’s legal division last month identified dozens of problems with Dunleavy’s executive order. “This executive order greatly exceeds the length and scope of prior executive orders … that merged or split executive branch departments,” legislative attorney Andrew Dunmire wrote in a Feb. 14 memo.

Legislators had requested the review.

Regardless of the memo, Dillingham Rep. Bryce Edgmon said 31 votes to block the change “don’t exist in joint session. I think we know that.”

Senate President Peter Micciche, of Soldotna, said he did not believe there is support at this time from Senate members for a joint session.

Prior governors considered breaking up the department but never advanced a plan to do so. Dunleavy proposed a split last year but withdrew that plan after his office cited “technical issues” with it.

His revised executive order was introduced in January.

Some legislators and public interest groups view the split as a way to address management concerns at sub-agencies such as the Office of Children’s Services, Alaska Psychiatric Institute and Division of Public Assistance.

Some critics worry about possible service impacts.

Wasilla Sen. David Wilson said he supports the split. He said ideally the Legislature would introduce and pass a “cleanup” bill to fix any problems with wording in the order. But he and others have expressed concern that such a bill could be amended by lawmakers to include COVID-19 vaccination issues, causing it to fail amid the politics of vaccine debates.

 

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