The Governor of Alaska is uniquely powerful among America’s governors. Alaska’s governmental structure is unique among the states. The State government is almost all-powerful. Little of the State has local government as most of you would understand it. The State does most of the things that local government does in the older states. Rather than the usual county structure, or parishes in LA, Alaska has boroughs. The larger towns and cities have unified city/borough governments, e.g., Anchorage and Juneau. Others have separate city and borough governments much like the city – county divide elsewhere. Most of the State geographically is in the “unorganized borough,” meaning it has no government except in the towns and villages. In those places the State does pretty much everything.
I’ve talked much, perhaps overmuch, about the economic system, so I won’t dwell on it here. Suffice it to say that all natural resource extraction revenue goes to the State and is distributed by the Legislature. Now to how the Executive Branch works.
The Executive is divided into 14 departments that roughly parallel the federal government’s structure. All department heads, called commissioners, are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Legislature. Unlike most of the older states, there are NO elected department heads in the Alaska government. Unlike most of the older states, there are NO elected department heads in the Alaska government. They serve at the pleasure of the Governor. Education has a State Board of Education that is appointed by the Governor and which appoints the commissioner of Education with the concurrence of the Governor. Fish and Game likewise has a board that has significant power over fish and game regulation but which does not appoint the commissioner.
Each department is divided into divisions which are largely organic units in the sense that a division is the level of the government that can perform all of its mission from its own resources. Those of you with federal and military experience will find this familiar. Last I looked there were about 170 divisions or functional equivalents, each headed by an appointee. Technically, directors are appointed by the commissioner of the department, but you may be assured that the Office of the Governor has to approve the appointment.
The Governor of Alaska is a working bureaucrat and I assure you gets little or no deference from the People and not a lot from either the Legislature or the State’s almost totally unionized workforce. A Republican Governor takes office with the certain knowledge that the State employee union leadership, with sometimes one or two exceptions, HATES the Governor and will do anything in its power to damage the Governor. For a Republican Governor, the battle with the unions starts the millisecond his/her hand comes off the Bible.
I’m doing this off the top of my head so it may not be precise but is generally accurate. The Executive Branch has about 17,000 employees all of which are unionized below the appointee level. The actual appointed political level management is perhaps 300 people. The General Fund budget ran in the 1.5 – 2 Billion range through the ‘80s and ‘90s with a total budget available for appropriation from all sources in the 3 – 5 billion range – depending on how the markets and Ted, Frank, and Don were doing, couldn’t resist that. These days the combined operating and capital budgets are in the $8-10 Billion range and the State has multi-billion dollar budget surpluses. Some of that money is redistributed to the People, e.g., this year’s $1200 per capita natural resources rebate, and the rest either sits in State investment accounts, is appropriated to the Permanent Fund, or can be spent in the operating or capital budgets.
The University of Alaska is State funded and has perhaps another 10K employees. It is governed by a Board of Regents appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Legislature. It has major campi in Fairbanks, the main campus, Anchorage, and Juneau with community campi throughout the State. One of the great failures of Republicans in both the Legislature and the Governorship is a failure to get a grip on the Board of Regents and the University administration is generally regarded as the place where out of power Democrats go to prepare for the next election, vest their retirement, or die.
The State owns the federally built – don’t worry, we bought it – Alaska Railroad. It is run as a quasi-governmental corporation with a board appointed by the Governor. The State also owns the second or third largest passenger ship line in the Country, the Alaska Marine Highway System that provides surface transportation between Alaska and Bellingham, WA as well as between various Alaska ports, particularly in roadless Southeast Alaska. It has, best I recall 12 vessels ranging from large ocean going mainline vessels down to a T-boat, about a hundred feet, serving Metlakatka Island near Ketchikan. Two of the vessels are High Speed Craft Code catamarans capable of over forty knots, the only vessels of their kind under the American flag. The AMHS is an executive branch agency, actually a division, under the Commissioner of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
The State also has the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation which owns all sorts of mostly low income residential property but which also is a significant lender in the Alaska residential mortgage market. In fact, during the ‘70s and‘80s when real people in America couldn’t get a mortgage because of the costs at 18% interest, AHFC was offering very attractive mortgages and Alaska had a housing boom.
And then there is the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation, current assets around $40 Billion. Twenty five percent of all non-renewable resource revenue is dedicated to the Permanent Fund, styled a “rainy day account” for when oil revenue declines. Each year the Fund is “inflation proofed” from earnings, then half of the remaining earnings are made available to the Legislature for appropriation, the other half is distributed to the People, including minors, on a per capita basis. That’s the “free money” you’re always hearing about. The Permanent Fund Board is appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Legislature.
So, that’s the Alaska government in a nutshell. I think running the Government of Alaska is a little more portentous and complex than running a campaign that uses other people’s money or being a “community organizer.” Those of you who’ve read much of my stuff know what I think about non-leadership legislative positions.