House Bill 63 passed the Alaska House of Representatives 37-0 on Wednesday with no objections from the floor. The governor, however, believes it violates the separation of powers clause in the Alaska Constitution. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

House Bill 63 would create an Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board that would be tasked with crafting both short- and long-term planning for the fleet. And the state Department of Transportation would be bound to incorporate its direction into daily operations.

The Alaska Marine Highway System has been struggling with deep funding cuts, an aging fleet and steep declines in ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My hometown of Sitka is getting less ferry service than any point since the 1960s,” Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D-Sitka) said on the House floor Wednesday (5-5-2021). “So that sort of puts things into context that we are definitely going backwards and not forwards. And it really affects people’s lives.”

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins addresses the Alaska House of Representatives, March 12, 2014. The Sitka Democrat is running for a second term. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)
HB63 was introduced on the floor by Sitka Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, pictured in 2014. (File photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

He relayed his experience as a coastal resident left in the lurch. At the end of last year’s legislative session there were no state ferries between the capital and his hometown so he used a private carrier.

“It took me four weeks on Alaska Marine Lines to barge my car, from Juneau to Sitka,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “This is simply not tenable for quality of life or commerce.”

Reforming the Alaska Marine Highway System has been a priority of coastal legislators which want more autonomy for the state ferry system. And this bill found bipartisan support with Railbelt lawmakers like Rep. James Kauffman (R-Anchorage) who worked to refine the legislation.

Coming from South Anchorage, I didn’t think I would be getting all busy on a bill about the ferries,” the freshman legislator told fellow lawmakers. “But it turned out it was an enjoyable process, even though it was hard work.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy floated a similar initiative earlier in the year that’s stalled in a House committee.

But this bill differs as four of the board’s nine members would be appointed by legislative leadership. And that could be a sticking point with the executive branch, which released a statement questioning the House bill’s constitutionality just hours after its passage.  

That’s because the governor’s office says that allowing lawmakers to appoint members to an executive board would violate the separation of powers.

“The Governor and Speaker (Louise) Stutes both share the belief that the advisory board needs to be reformed,” Governor’s Office spokesman Jeff Turner told CoastAlaska via email. “However, the board appointment process contained in HB63 is considered to be unconstitutional by the administration because it permits the presiding officers of the legislature to appoint members to an executive board.”

That wrinkle was raised in an April 6 legal memo to lawmakers. But legislative counsel said that since the operations board would be largely advisory, a court may find no legal issues exist.

It now heads to the state Senate for consideration with its first hearing set for May 11. 

HB63 comes as lawmakers announced they’ve reached consensus on a plan that would forward fund the ferry system by 18-months rather than a year. The ferry system is also in line to receive nearly $77 million in federal pandemic relief.

But the final ferry budget remains to be worked out by both legislative houses and signed by the governor.